How the French took their time to come round to the seaside

The joys of sun and sand were slow to catch on across the Channel

Until the middle of the last century it was not the chic Parisian bourgeoisie who headed for the coast to enjoy the pleasures of the sea, sun and sand but tramps, hunchbacks, the lame, deformed and generally undesirable, according to Flaubert.

The French tended to consider their beaches as wild, barren and rather dull, and certainly not a place to be spotted by any fellow members of the haute societe.

They were a far cry from the chic and exclusive resorts of St Tropez, Cannes and Biarritz of today, where holidaymakers are rarely averse to being spotted.

Our desire to strip down to next to nothing whenever we get the chance, and indulge in bodily pleasures of sea, sun and sand is all explained and illustrated at the exhibition of photographs, sketches, cartoons and collages, called "Vacances A La Mer" (holidays at the seaside) at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

The exhibition traces the development of the seaside culture in France, beginning with a delightful set of sketches showing 19th-century French families at the beach, obviously not yet aware of the pleasures of a trip to the seaside, and suffering considerably. Another sketch shows a woman who refuses to go into a beach hut to change because she is worried that she'll come out looking like the tramp just next to her.

The seaside became more attractive to the French as they became aware of the benefits to health of a stroll along the beach or an afternoon spent in a deckchair breathing in the fresh sea air. However, the idea of spending a holiday or even a whole day at the seaside only really took off when people began swimming in the sea and the expensive resorts of the South of France as well as those in Normandy and Brittany began to attract large numbers.

The introduction of paid holidays in 1936 and the development of trade unions also encouraged the build-up of more affordable seaside resorts.

By 1964 one in three of French holidaymakers chose to go to the beach.

As fashions changed and it became more acceptable to reveal all, or at least nearly all, so people could go to the beach in suitable dress; sunbathing, swimming and playing games became altogether more enjoyable pastimes and of course this step forward opened the door for the creation of beach fashion.

However, the creation of the swimming costume posed some serious problems. Those concerned with health were adamant that it must be white, as any other colour was considered bad for the skin. However, as the wet T-shirt competition has shown us all, when wet, white tends to become transparent. The final solution was the stripe, based on the navy uniform, and a compromise between the health-conscious and the modest. The stripe became the universal beach design, spreading from France to Britain and Belgium and across Europe.

Eventually not only was it used on swimming costumes, but also to decorate anything from tents to parasols to beach balls and swimming bags. Not until the 1970s and 1980s has it begun to be replaced by designs influenced by Asian, African and Caribbean countries.

The exhibition follows the discovery of the joys and pleasures of the sea, sun and sand. But ends with a sobering sculpture of a family in the 1990s who go for a dip in the sea, only to discover that their feet dissolve on contact with the water.

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