Styling by the Sea: 140 Years of Swimwear

Joan Marshall

Dear Members and Friends,

In 1883 – 137 years ago this month – Galveston’s first beachfront hotel opened. Designed by architect Nicholas Clayton, the Beach Hotel was an impressive four-story structure sporting a roof painted in alternating red and white stripes. Built by investors in the Galveston Railroad Company, the remarkable property catered to tourists seeking escape to a new destination, the beach.

Going to the beach wasn’t always a popular activity. From ancient times through the 18th century, the beach was more often a place of fear – a dark unknown, a wilderness of water, of shipwrecks and storms, not to mention drownings. But by the 19th century, the beach had become a transformative place offering the rising middle class an escape from crowded cities and the curative qualities of fresh air. Doctors increasingly prescribed a plunge into a chilly sea for everything from “female troubles” to tuberculosis.

The Bryan Museum is looking back at 140 Years of Beachwear in our newest virtual exhibition that goes live this weekend. What did a fashionable couple wear to the beach in the 1880s and what was the most popular song of the decade? Take a trip through time and our evolving notions of beauty and the body as we explore the evolution of beachwear. Each month, a new era of swimwear fashion and history will be unveiled to the public.