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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before