In the latter part of the 19th century, going to the beach at Coney Island was a big deal; even so much as getting one’s feet wet on the shoreline was a supreme endeavor. While established New Yorkers may have dressed elegantly (or profusely) in that era of staid if dubious mores and morals, sportiness was an act of defiance and casualness hinted of impoverishment. Nevertheless, beach-going (along with actually venturing into the water) started to become popular in the 1890s. The problem was how to balance propriety, especially in regard to female bathers, with fun in the sun.
A self-appointed “master” of beach-going advice, a Dr. Durant (who was enough to make male chauvinists, even of his time, look foolish), offered women a tedious handbook dealing with what to wear and how to behave at the beach:
“The bathing dress should be made of a woolen fabric,” he announced. “We particularly insist upon woolen as the material to be worn, as it retains the heat of the body, and therefore prevents a too rapid evaporation. Maroon and blue are the proper colors,” he proceeded, where there were none who dared gainsay him, “as they resist the bleaching and corrosive effects of the salt-water. The dress should consist essentially of two parts—a pair of pantaloons and a blouse…The pantaloons …should not be buttoned too tightly to the ankles, as circulation would thereby be impeded…Enter the water resolutely and briskly, until the water reaches the waist…If you can swim three strokes without going under, it is a fair start.” GOOD OLD CONEY ISLAND
For the most part, only the burgeoning hordes of newly-arrived immigrants ignored the arrogant blustering of such as Dr. Durant; either through choice or necessity, they did their own thing. Lacking the money for conventional elegance, open to “sportiness” due to their own cultural disparity, and wearing the “casual” dress of a working class which often experienced appalling difficulties, Coney Island was an oasis of enjoyment.
The beach was a place to get one’s feet wet on what was pleasurable in America, while enduring New York City’s less pleasurable tenements and workplaces. Soon the restraining “woolen fabric” and “proper colors,” etc, of bathing dresses would be dropped; bathing attire that would be as comfortably attractive to wear as the pleasure gained, along those now distant waves of change, would soon follow.