Long considered dangerous or of purely commercial interest, the sea, and by association, the beach, only gained in popularity in the 1750’s, when poets and painters shed a romantic spotlight on it.
The beach and coastal towns or resorts became iconic vacation spots by the end of the 19th century, as the sea breeze and the sun were increasingly sought out for their therapeutic virtues.
The obsession with the paleness of one’s skin, which had for so long been an indicator of social status distinguishing peasants and nobles, slowly gave way to the tanning revolution. The latter really took off in the 1920’s, with the end of corsets, as well as the shortening of dresses and hair.
The bronzed glow broke social and bodily codes and became the new demarcation between working class and the bourgeoisie. In 1926, Jean Patou created the first tanning oil and in 1932, Colette said: “Summer beauty is black”.
The first days of the bikini in 1946 and of the monokini in 1964 were a testimony to the movement towards sexual and physical liberation that was happening in France; a move that made beaches a place where the eroticization of women’s bodies is omnipresent.
Contemporary sociologists thought of the beach as a separate, heterotypical space for a long time – they thought that the codes and the behaviors that reigned everywhere else didn’t apply there. In the public arena, you can only strip on a beach. In the public arena, you don’t really lay on the floor, except at the beach. In the public arena, you don’t nap anywhere but at the beach.
And yet, because it is a public space, norms and behaviors are still codified and change with the times. The burkini shocks as much in 2017 as the bikini did in 1946. The fear of breast cancer has decreased the number of monokinis, born in 1964, and very few women tan topless these days. The de-eroticization of women’s bodies has progressively replaced the immense erotic connotation of the bikini.
The beach is finally but a reflection of our societies.
We bring our cultural norms, our socio-economic status, our education, our relationship with our bodies and that of others to the beach.
Today, I have probably brought all that with me but I have definitely brought this beautiful, large, wide-brimmed hat, that is at least a century old.
Eres swimsuit – Marcel & Jeannette hat – Face A Face sunglasses