Stuff that matters

There is a universal idea in England, shared even by the travelled, that the sea bathing of France is superior to ours. I think this only means that we find it more amusing to bathe in French than in English surroundings, for there is really not much in the French bathing arrangements that is worthy of imitation over here.

In some French seaside places – Calais, for instance – the arrangements are much the same as ours. One bathes from a machine, as at Margate or anywhere else, and the tide goes out so far that, after a warning shout from outside of “Attention, s’il vous plait!” the bather finds himself jolted and bumped over the sand till he is conveyed, with luck, to a depth of three feet of water, beyond which it is only possible to wade after an argument with a presiding Neptune in yellow oilskin, who blows a tin trumpet and screams at any hardy swimmer who is out of his depth.

At most places, though, France certainly supplies the little lath-and-canvas hut so highly admired by the English visitor – I suppose because it is distinctively French, and therefore suggestive of summer holidays, for I can think of no better reason. The only difference I can see between the bathing machine and the bathing hut is that the one is movable and the other fixed, and the latter is a doubtful advantage when the hut is placed high upon the beach. I have always found both equally uncomfortable, stuffy, and ill-lighted, and I have never been able to understand why neither is improved by the simple method of making the roof of ground glass and inserting a skylight in it.

The solitary advantage enjoyed by French over English sea baths resolves itself into the tub of hot water supplied at the former, for which one has to pay twice over, first in the form of ticket and secondly in that of a tip.

The fact is it is very difficult to make ideal bathing arrangements for the million. The only enjoyable way to bathe is to live on the seashore, use one’s bedroom for a machine, and swim whenever inclined. I admit this does not meet the requirements of the mass of summer holiday bathers, but, then, I am never really convinced that the summer holiday bathers want to bathe as much as they pretend they do. I am not referring to swimmers; they never bathe in the summer holiday sense. They go out before breakfast without talking about it, and return with an appetite that commands respect for their silence. They do not discuss the state of the water and the temperature, they do not shudder with a fearful joy at the sight of breakers, they do not spend half the morning waiting for the bathing machine with a sneaking hope that they will not get one, and the other half, five minutes subtracted for the bathe, in dressing themselves with numbed fingers.

In France the quality of the bathing dress is higher than in England, though I have seen ugly visions at Boulogne as at Folkestone, and as charming ones at Folkestone as at Boulogne. Still, mixed bathing, slowly becoming general over here, has always existed in France, and this has naturally made the French costume of more importance. At the same time some of the best costumes I have seen, on either side of the water, have been worn by Englishwomen; and I think this is because the Englishwoman, being by instinct more of a sportswoman than her French sister, would not sacrifice utility to appearances quite so much, and at the same time, having once grasped the necessity of being charmingly as well as practically clad in the water, will attain both ideals the more successfully of the two.

I do not mean by this that English swimming is necessarily better than French; from what I have seen of both there is little to choose between them, and some of the best diving I ever saw was done at Dieppe, largely by the natives. But there is this difference between them – the Frenchwoman who cannot swim simply does not bother about it; she frankly bathes in a few inches of surf, and spends her time conversing with her friends on the beach. The Englishwoman, on the other hand, always keeps up the fiction that she is there to swim, and, if she can do nothing better, stands with one foot on the ground and does the arm stroke, getting quite a respectable distance by a series of little hops – and deceiving no one.

Therefore the least skilful of English bathers has some regard for the practical side of her costume, just as the most skilful of French swimmers has some regard for the appearance of hers. And there is not the least reason why a bathing dress should not be practical as well as becoming.

In the shops they are, as a rule, neither one nor the other; and I should strongly advise feminine bathers, if possible, to make their costumes at home. The ready-made dress is nearly always made of serge, a fairly good material for the purpose, as it does not shrink, or cling, or tear; but, even when very fine, wet serge becomes heavy.

For bathing in public a dress has to contain so much material that its texture, since it is to be saturated with water, becomes of the first importance. For those who can afford it I should unhesitatingly recommend taffeta silk of the strongest kind.

The prettiest and most serviceable bathing-dress I have seen, worn at Dieppe by an English girl, was in black taffeta, and would satisfy every requirement of the woman who wants to swim and look well at the same time. It was light, strong, did not cling, looked the same wet or dry, and dried quickly when exposed to the air. I cannot speak with experience of its wearing possibilities, but this one saw the season out at Dieppe, and taffeta should wear as well as most materials if chosen carefully. We cannot all afford silk costumes, however, and Italian cloth makes a very good substitute. This wears well, I know, retains its glossy appearance when wet, and is not heavy, besides being both cheaper and lighter than serge. I must confess, though, that it is inclined to cling when drenched with water.

The peignoir is another important part of the costume, especially in France, where the walk from the bathing hut to the sea is to be considered. Some people think a kind of opera cloak without sleeves, made in bath-towelling, is all that is required; but I cannot help thinking that this sort of cloak when wrapped round a dripping figure merely suggests the indoor bath. The best shape is that of the Japanese kimono, and if the cotton material in which this is generally made is considered too limp for the purpose that shape can easily be copied in something that repels the wet, such as bunting or, better still, the rough house-flannel of which we are now making our walking skirts.