Sunday, 24 August 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Witch of the Low Tide by John Dickson Carr

published 1961


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES




She wore the most modern bathing dress of 1907…
She lay face down on the floor in that other room. The pallid daylight fell faintly on her dark-brown bathing-costume, and on her bare thighs and legs, and on the canvas shoes that she always wore to swim. ..
Through his mind ran words Betty had read aloud to him, less than a week ago, from a so-called fashion hint in a magazine.





‘“A discarded heavy wool-mohair skirt,”’ she had quoted,  ‘“can be made over into an excellent new bathing-costume.”’ And she had added,  ‘Ugh!’…
Garth looked at the wall opposite. From one of the hooks along this wall hung a long bathing-cape of brown serge with horizontal yellow stripes. It belonged to Betty, he knew, although she very seldom wore it.





SUMMER SPECIAL - BATHING SUITS




observations: This book is subtitled ‘An Edwardian melodrama’, and is part of a trilogy Carr wrote covering the first 90 years of the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard. He obviously researched these books very well, and went to a lot of trouble about – among many other aspects – the clothes. There were many items in the book I could have chosen to illustrate – Moulin Rouge, ladies’ daywear, men’s evening wear. (The Satanist group in Paris, though tempting, never really got going and he doesn’t tell us what they wore.) But the idea of turning your heavy woollen skirt into a bathing suit had to win out in the end. As he explains, bathing suits became a lot lighter at this time – and it is comment-worthy that Betty does not wear stockings to swim.

All this was to the good, and there is a hotchpotch of Freudianism, shilling shockers, the usual ‘impossible murder’, and dramatic tension-raisers such as authorial comments of (Look out! Look out!) interspersed in a tricky interrogation. I liked the character Marion, ‘in a pose he suspected of being imitated from Mrs Patrick Campbell on the stage.’

I have said before that JDC likes to create quite a sexy atmosphere, though true to his time he doesn’t go into too much detail, and in this book – can’t say too much – he ventures into some very difficult territory, with views that would not be popular today. (You might generously allow that he is trying to accept women as sexual beings.) There are shades of Fo
rd Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, of all unlikely books. 

JDC is never less than a good read, though I think I prefer when he writes about his own time. And it was great fun finding pictures of the bathing costumes. These ones do not look as though they were made from old skirts, but that IS a useful fashion tip.

More discussion of beachwear in this entry and this one.

The (presumably) colorized photo is from George Eastman House.

The b/w photo is of ‘Australian swimmer and silent Hollywood film star Annette Kellerman’ in 1907, but it is recognized that this is quite a daring swimsuit for the time. It’s from the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The group of 5 women is from 1908 and is from the State Library of New South Wales.

The advertising illo is from later, 1913, and is from the collection of the University of Washington.


16 comments:

  1. Moira - What a great topic for a post! I can't imagine what it must have been like to wear one of those old style swim suits. It's good to hear that you enjoyed this one, even if it isn't Carr's usual topic/era. It does sound like a really interesting book, and I've always admired Carr's writing.

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    1. Yes, even his weaker entries are still good. And the swimsuits were a joy to look at!

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  2. Moira: The sleek suit worn by Ms. Kellerman would not be in out of place on a contemporary beach though, from my observations in the Bahamas and crusises over the last two years, it is a rare young woman these days who wears a single piece suit. It makes me feel old to remember in my youth it was a rare young woman who wore a two piece suit.

    I cannot help but think most of the swimming suits for men and women a century ago were more flattering for those of us without toned bodies.

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    1. She looks very modern doesn't she? And I tend to agree about one piece swimsuits - I don't blame gorgeous young women who want to show off their bodies, but some of us prefer a more generous cut....

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  3. It's been ages since I read this one Moira and I think FIRE,BURN remains my favourite of his Victorian stories. But I love the idea of a comparison with Ford's classic novel - must read this very soon - thanks Moira, as always!

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    1. I don't think I've read Fire, Burn - I will look it up. He wrote such a lot, but I've never read one that was a complete washout. One day I will go through your very helpful list and work out which ones I've still to read.

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  4. I think the Maritime Museum might possibly be off on the date of that picture. It was taken for a book published in 1918 so 1917 seems to make a LOT more sense than 1907. She has nowhere near the volume of hair you'd expect for 1907 (not to mention the volume of bathing costume coverage) She'd be 21 years old there, but could equally well be 31 there, so I guess that doesn't prove much. Fascinating pic by any standards and certainly her 1916 cigarette card on the Museum blog on her does show a much more revealing outfit....

    But yeah, it's a hard call. Looking at it I'd have said c.1920 without context. 1907 is just about barely (fnar!) possible, but I think it's got to be well into the 1910s.

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    1. Thanks Daniel - what you say is both helpful and convincing! And of course as you say, the more you look at it the less likely it looks for 1907...

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  5. Aaauugh! What horrid bathing suits. Even though we women of a certain age prefer one-piece suits, I don't think we want to drown just from the weight of all this material!

    No wonder it took women so long to get the vote!

    I can imagine marching for actual bathing suits in which one could actually swim!

    I can't imagine Diana Nyad being able to swim 90 miles from Cuba to Florida in one of those get-ups.

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    1. It is hard to imagine, isn't it, that anyone could ever have thought it was a good idea to go into the water with so much voluminous material around them - doesn't bear thinking about. But, I think the third one down isn't so bad, I could contemplate that one...

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  6. I knew that women wore longer, fuller bathing suits but not that they were made of wool; very interesting. Still have not tried John Dickson Carr; I have a couple to get to sometime.

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    1. I know, it's quite startling isn't it, and difficult to contemplate. I think you might like him when you finally get to him - they're usually short, for a start.

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  7. Wool! Even more of a problem. I wonder if any women could actually swim in those suits or if they just waded. Who dreamt up these bathing suits?

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    1. Yes, the wool is even harder to imagine - and surely cotton would have been just as reasonable an option at that time...?

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  8. Just re-checked the list and his bibliography, I think I'm deluding myself. Don't think I bought one at all.

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    1. But you have to read something by him some time....

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