Getty Images

Why we’ve always loved seaside style

The coast has long been a place for promenading and peacocking. Amber Butchart explores nautical sartorial styles, from fishermen’s smocks to beach pyjamas.

Forget the catwalks of Paris or the streets of Milan, it’s the seaside that should be celebrated as one of our most enduring fashion centres. “Attire for bathing beaches and spas is every bit as, if not even more elegant than, clothes for walking along the Champs-Elysées or in the Bois de Boulogne,” declared the French fashion magazine La Corbeille in1855.

From the earliest days of coastal tourism, when the beach crossed over from a place of work to a place of leisure, the seaside has been dominated by the idea of fashionable display, and the desire to see and be seen. The joy of this spectacle is currently on show at Seaside: Photographed at Margate’s Turner Contemporary in the UK. Exploring our relationship with the coast through the lens of more than 70 photographers, the exhibition charts the evolution of the seaside holiday in parallel with the development of photography.

More like this:

- Return of the mighty mini

- Fashion created in the clouds

- What inspired the ‘master’ of fashion

The seaside became fashionable throughout the 18th Century as doctors advocated the health-giving qualities of ‘taking the water’, and aristocrats duly responded. The expansion of the railways increased excursions to the coast – along with the demographic mix that was able to go – and discussions of health and wellbeing were gradually superseded by the lure of pleasure. Piers, palaces, winter gardens and aquariums were built to attract the growing numbers of day-trippers to the shoreline, as well as those who could afford to stay for longer.

The annual trip to the coast became de rigueur for maintaining a fashionable lifestyle as increasing numbers of resorts evolved from spa towns and picturesque fishing villages. These destinations relied on glamour as a selling point, and their piers and promenades became forerunners to the catwalk, as the season’s finest was regularly paraded by the water. Magazines advised on the best dress to wear for strolling, bathing and boating, often with appropriately nautical flourishes. Seaside styles abounded in fashion plates, and were satirised on the pages of Punch magazine.

This heady, holiday atmosphere led to relaxed moral codes as well as relaxed wardrobes

As a holiday destination, the seaside allowed a level of sartorial excess that would have been unacceptable in urban spaces: what would have been denounced as tasteless in towns was mere eccentricity at the coast. This was a place, on the fringes of the nation, where the land meets the sea, where social rules could be broken. This heady, holiday atmosphere led to relaxed moral codes as well as relaxed wardrobes. “There are the young ladies, perfectly decorous and well-behaved in London, who give themselves up to abandon on piers and other public places,” decried The Queen magazine in 1900.

As a place that enabled subversive styles to flourish, the seaside gave us beach pyjamas in the interwar years: an early instance of women in trousers in public. Coco Chanel donned beach pyjamas as early as 1918, and throughout the following decade they were adopted by wealthy women when holidaying by the sea. In 1925 Vanity Fair reported that extravagantly patterned beach pyjamas were all the rage for men at Deauville in France and at the lido in Venice, and according to local news, the Riviera town Juan-les-Pins became known as Pyjamaland due to the popularity of the style.

As a setting for sartorial non-conformity, British beaches were the meeting point of choice for parka-clad Mods and their nemeses the Rockers in the 1960s. Karen Shepherdson, co-curator of Seaside: Photographed, believes peacocking was a big part of the appeal: “To head to the coast provided not just open spaces in terms of the beaches, but also seafronts – long strips of road between the beach and the arcades and cafes which acted as a motorised promenade. Here offered the opportunity for group display – to promenade at speed.”

Gone fishing

It was not only the leisured classes or later thrill-seeking day-trippers who flaunted their sartorial panache on British beaches. At the same time that the Mods and Rockers were convening at Clacton, Margate and Brighton, the trawler ‘fisherlads’ of Lowestoft were attempting to outdo each other with their ostentatious suits. Seafaring work could be hazardous and demanded clothing that protected from the elements, so there was a great desire to dress to impress in scarce leisure time.

The boys designed their outfits themselves at the local tailor, often combining velvet piping with bright colours and contrasting lapels were not uncommon, as they competed to be the most finely-attired on land. In 1964 the local newspaper claimed they were “among the most flamboyant dressers in the country, wearing suits of shocking pink, primrose yellow and kingfisher blue.”

Artist colonies at the coast saw the workwear of fishermen infiltrate the bohemian wardrobe

Fishing communities had been known for their ostentatious garb from at least the 18th Century. For around 100 years, from 1860, the Scottish ‘fisherlassies’ were a distinctive sight around British beaches. Hailing from towns such as Newhaven or Aberdeen, they would follow the herring fleet of ‘silver darlings’ down the east coast, where they joined local women in gutting, packing and salting the catch. ‘Sunday best’ dresses were carefully packed alongside oilskin or leather aprons, and the striped petticoats of fisherwives from Scotland to Brittany and the Basque coast were popular subjects of picture-postcard souvenirs for tourists who were keen to romanticise their way of life. The outer layer of skirts could be pinned up to form a pocket, a stylistic device that was mimicked by wealthy Victorians. Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, born in a busy Basque fishing village, replicated this style for a dress design in 1947.

From smocks to the striped Breton top, many of the garments we associate with chic, effortless style were once the most hardworking. Fishing was a dangerous job. Men were at the mercy of the elements, so the occupational requirements for fishermen’s dress was tantamount; clothing had to be functional and offer much-needed protection.

Yet the romance of the sea and dramatic coastal vistas has also held a long appeal for artists in the UK. From the Newlyn School and St Ives in Cornwall, to Happisburgh in Norfolk, artist colonies at the coast saw the workwear of fishermen infiltrate the bohemian wardrobe. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald wrote about dressing in French fisherman’s workwear from marine supply stores, while one of the first items created by Coco Chanel was inspired by the smocks of Normandy fishermen.

With the rise of ‘slow fashion’, reported health benefits of sea swimming, and the growing urgency of seaside regeneration, coastal clothing is once again flourishing, travelling down the east coast like the herring fleet. Geoffrey Miller, co-director of Flamborough Marine, which produces authentic hand-knitted ganseys (the distinctive pullover found in many fishing ports around Britain and the Channel), claims that the longevity of the garments is at the heart of their success. “Because of the way they are knitted, if a cuff or elbow should ever fray after many years of service, this can be re-knitted. And the patterns never seem to go out of fashion.”

Yarmouth Stores has been making hard-wearing clothing on the quayside in Great Yarmouth for more than 100 years. In 2017 the own-brand label Yarmouth Oilskins was revived, with a logo featuring the Yarmouth Bloater. Using the archive as inspiration, designer Sophie Miller understands that the allure of coastal workwear comes from its functionality and heritage: “The durability of the clothes means the pieces get better with age and wear, and become a story in themselves, a piece of your own history.”

Most of the garments produced by Blackshore – named after part of Southwold’s harbour – are sewn in a former fishing-net factory in Lowestoft, making it the UK’s most easterly atelier. Blackshore’s Simon Middleton believes the appeal of items inspired by Suffolk fishermen is bound up in the magic of the seaside: “The coast is where people go to relax, to dream, to get in touch with a different side of life and the human condition. It’s elemental.” In the UK, we are never more than 70 miles from the beach. So it’s no surprise we are so enamoured with seaside style.

Seaside: Photographed runs at Turner Contemporary, Margate until 8 September.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.