Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Men & Women Swimming Together...in 1810

Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Susan reporting:

With summer winding down, I thought I'd post a print that's appropriate for the last days of August. It's going to be a case of "one picture is worth a thousand words", too, because I can find very little to share about its history.

Called "Les Nageurs" ("The Swimmers"), this image is No. 15 in a rare series of early 19th c. French prints called Caricatures Parisiennes: Le Supreme Bon Ton. The prints show the pastimes of fashionable young people in Napoleon's Paris. While they're called "caricatures", they have none of the bite of their English counterparts, and more of the hand-tinted elegance of fashion plates.

But consider what a racy scene this must have been at the time. Swimming had long been considered good manly exercise (recall Charles II, swimming in the Thames outside Whitehall in the 1660s) and ladies, too, had been known to dabble in the water, but I can't recall seeing any other picture from this early date showing the two parties in the water together. They're clearly swimming, too, not just splashing about. That one guy hopping into the water with his pointed toes is showing off his chiseled, beach-boy physique (as well as his woolly sideburns), hoping to be scouted for some long-distant episode of Jersey Shore.

Even more interesting is that they appear to be wearing stylish costumes designed specifically for the activity. No skinny-dipping for these folks! The men's drawers are based on breeches or drawers, with button-front falls (that flap-like fly) in the front, and the hems are trimmed with a natty contrasting border, much like the trunks worn by 1950s lifeguards.  The ladies are a little harder to figure out, but they, too, seem to be wearing specific swimming "dress," with caps over their hair and knee-length, sleeveless garments. There are buttons under the arm that have become unbuttoned (?) and I'm guessing the fabric is linen by the revealing way it's clinging to the lady's body. For that matter, the men's drawers aren't hiding many secrets, either, which makes this co-ed swim party all the more extraordinary.

Was this kind of easy, athletic freedom common in Paris at the time? Or was it only an invention (or wishful thinking) by the artist?

Above: Les Nageurs (The Swimmers), from the series Le Supreme Bon Ton, No. 15; artist unknown; published by Martinet, Paris, c. 1810-1815


Hels said...

Great image! But I agree with your comments about the timing of the card. The clothing looks 20th century and not before WW2, probably later.

Lady Burgley said...

What a stunning picture, like nothing I've ever seen from the period. Out in deep water and far from shore, with no chaperone in sight. All I can say is not in England!

Richard Foster said...

Looks like the fellow in the water is doing the front crawl, a swimming stroke dismissed as uncivilized by most Westerners until the late nineteenth century. Another anachronism?

Catherine Delors said...

During the French Revolution, it became illegal to swin in the nude in the Seine... These are law-abiding citizens.

Pauline said...

I've done a fair amount of research on swimming and this picture is not at all hard to believe. Swimming was quite a popular pastime until the Victorian era when people suddenly seemed to forget how to do it all together. The belief that most sailors didn't know how to swim, for instance, did not become an actuality until the 1830s making me wonder if the Industrial Revolution didn't have a hand in keeping us out of rivers, lakes and the ocean until the 20th century brought back "leisure".

Shannon said...

Considering what the Industrial Revolution did to the rivers, lakes and the ocean, I'm really not surprised people kept out of the water!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

These costumes from the early 19th c. are particularly startling when compared to ones later in the century. Here's a link to an example of a 1875 women's bathing costume, plus the fascinating blog explaining swimming at that time:


Scadalous or not, I think the people here look like they're having much more fun....

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket