How to date your ancestors’ holiday photographs

By Jon Bauckham, 19 July 2016 - 3:16pm

It’s always exciting to come across your ancestors’ holiday snaps, but what if you have no idea when they were taken? Rebecca Arnold offers expert tips on how to date them...

The seaside has been a favourite summer holiday destination since the second half of the 19th century, when developments in train travel and bank holidays made trips possible for all but the poorest.

However, Britain’s unreliable weather and the need for modesty means that a history of our nation’s beachwear is not always about baring the body. In the late 19th century, bathing costumes for both sexes comprised baggy tunics and knee-length bloomers.

Since then, there has been a gradual shift towards tighter and less cumbersome swimsuits. By the early teens, men wore long jersey tunics and knee-length shorts that morphed into two- and then one-piece ‘maillots’ by the following decade.

In the ’30s, these were increasingly clingy, and reduced to high-waisted trunks by 1940. For women, the frilled tunics and bloomers of the early teens shrank to two-piece styles, similar to men’s by the ’20s, before becoming less unisex, with low backs and body-hugging fabrics in the ’30s.

Alongside swimwear, is the emergence of playsuits, beach pyjamas and relaxed sportswear in the interwar period.


Credit: Colonel HW Verschoyle/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Women’s jackets
Both women wear pale jackets – a necessary addition to their light summer dresses, given that it can be chilly on the beach. The full skirts and little parasols are typical of the decade.

Men’s hats
What now seem like very formal items, including bowler hats were worn at the beach by boys and men. Boaters were a lighter alternative and worn throughout the later 19th and early 20th century.

Late 1880s - early 1890s

Credit: Getty Images 

Girls' hats 
The little girl in the centre’s high-crowned, small-brimmed hat gives away the date as late 1880s or early 1890s. Adult women wore the same styles, but with their hair tucked into a chignon underneath.

Beach wear often consisted of everyday clothes that were adapted for the environment – skirts were tucked into waistbands revealing undergarments – in the case of these little girls, bloomers.


Credit: Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images

Keeping the sun off the face was important – suntans weren’t fashionable until the 1920s – so parasols were common. Late-1890s styles were large, which was important, given the size of hats and hairstyles at the time.

Contrasting colours and pale cotton or linen blouses were ideal for walking on the promenade. Jackets could also be left open when at the seaside – another concession to being on holiday.

Skirts worn with blouses had become a fashionable informal style in the 1860s. By the 1890s, skirts were A-line, and blouses featured ‘gigot’ sleeves, with very full puffs from shoulder to elbow.


Credit: Bridgeman Art Library

Women were expected to wear black stockings on the beach, even when bathing. However, you do sometimes see photographs where they’ve been removed.

Knee-length dresses were worn over bloomers to preserve women’s modesty when bathing. These dresses were made of heavy satin-weave fabrics and dark colours were favoured.

Sailor style 
Sailor styles were popular in the 1900s and early 1910s. By the early teens, decoration tended to be simpler.


Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Men's costumes 
Men’s swimming costumes were usually in a single colour during the first decades of the 20th century. Although horizontal stripes were sometimes seen.

Tops and shorts
Vest-shaped tops and longish shorts were worn – by the early 1910s these were quite form fitting, like the ones seen here.


Swimsuit styles were essentially unisex, with little if any differentiation for gender. Knitted fabrics, especially jersey, meant the fabric clung to the body – and could become heavy and misshapen once wet.

Girls' styles 
The older girls have more defined silhouettes – with belts and, in one case, contrast trim and a skirt-like tunic. This swimsuit may be in two pieces – common in the ’20s.

Children's costumes 
The younger children’s swimming costumes are plainer and may even be homemade. From the teens onwards, fashion and women’s magazines carried patterns for knitting swimsuits.

1930s men

Open-necked shirts were acceptable in this context, as well as short sleeves and going hatless. Both men appear to wear some form of plimsoll – again permissible while at the seaside.

Men gradually integrated more sportswear items into their beach ensembles. This meant greater informality and the use of lighter colours and fabrics.

Wide-legged trousers were popular from the late ‘20s into the ‘30s and were cooler to wear, as well as giving greater ease of movement.

1930s women

Sun hats 
Sun hats with wide-brims were seen from the early 20th century. Thirties’ fashions favoured pale, straw hats – in this case with folded-back brims to reveal the face.

Beach pyjamas
Beach pyjamas began to feature in fashion magazines in the late ‘20s – but were only adopted widely in the 1930s. Various designs existed from wide culottes-style ones as seen here, to longer more fluid ones.

Sandals were first worn by children, but were popular for adults by this time. Sand shoes – like an early form of plimsoll – were worn on the beach from the 1860s onwards.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine


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