Thursday, 23 August 2012

The seaside - codes, behaviour and class.

‘I’ve got to move with the fashions or be outcast’ (Pete Townsend. Cut My Hair. (1973)). To follow the changing modes and manners, to run with the expectations of one’s culture and the crowd, the seaside and its ceremony has, especially for the lower-middle and working-classes, remained part of and a place for a little relief and respite from the stresses and smoke of an urban lifestyle, a break from the drudgery of the everyday. This essay shall examine the history and rationale surrounding some of the strict codes of behaviour that, in my opinion, help to make the seaside part of this ritual of escape. 

Along with measured therapeutic doses of seaside bathing, the consumption of sea water was popular and considered beneficial to one’s health by the upper-classes of the 1730s, advice that medical practitioners evolved from a similar well-established tradition involving mineral springs. Believed to be dangerous without the correct supervision of skilled staff, called Dippers, from modesty preserving beachfront covered wagons, called Bathing Machines, the cold water shock to the skin, nerves and internal organs was carefully regulated and costly, the reserve of the high-society set, the sickly well-to-do. ‘Bathing was not supposed to be pleasant’ (Deborah Brunton (2008) pg, 170). Taking the health-giving sea air was an agreeable alternative to icy bathing, although a claim that was scientifically dubious, ‘chemical analyses (exaggerated results which) showed that air samples [...] contained [...] (high levels of) ozone’ (Deborah Brunton (2008) pg, 171).

Breathing the sea breeze was far simpler than enduring chilly salt-water submersions and much cheaper for the less wealthy middle-classes, who could of course swim a little as well if they so wished, separated a suitable distance from the price prohibitive Bathing Machines. Despite the embellishment of the medicinal benefits, albeit providing a real escape from city smog, the seaside visit, by the later part of the eighteenth century was a ‘very fashionable activity’ (Deborah Brunton (2008) pg, 170).

As the Victorian middle-classes flocked to the seaside to enjoy the air, resort towns cashed in providing promenades, parks, winter gardens and piers, the better to enjoy the experience. ‘By the end of the nineteenth century, every seaside resort town of any size had a pier,’ (Deborah Brunton (2008) pg, 173), some carrying an entry charge, an attempt to ‘maintain a select tone for the well-off, high-class market’ (Deborah Brunton (2008) pg, 109). Middle-class holidaymakers were quickly joined by the lucrative ‘day tripping’ working-classes; the seaside escape was soon established, across the entire social spectrum, both in and out of the water.  

‘Zoot suit, white jacket with side vents five inches long’ (Pete Townsend. Cut My Hair. (1973)). Whilst exploiting the welcome refuge from the urban routine that seaside trips awarded its visitors, the different cliques and classes still elected to bring along their own familiar fashions, tastes and traits, which helped define stereotypical behaviour. ‘The seaside was a place which had its own expectations of behaviour, reflected by a kind of uniform’ (Lucy Faire, (2008) pg, 136).  The health-conscious Victorian upper-classes, formally dressed, ladies in long skirts or dresses and large brimmed hats, shaded from the sun, ‘tanned skin was associated with those who worked outside’ (Lucy Faire, (2008) pg, 134). The holidaymaking middle-classes, respectably dressed, relaxing with their shoes on, ‘bare feet [...] (was) a sign of poverty’ (Lucy Faire, (2008) pg, 135). The ‘rowdy’ working-classes arrived on mass suited and booted in their Sunday best, ‘the suit was worn in leisure time. It didn’t have the negative work-related connotations it has today’ (Lucy Faire, (2008) pg, 135). Too proud to wear work clothes, they couldn’t afford holiday clothes as well. Bare legs were not shown, ‘no adults wore shorts, at least not until the early Thirties’ (Goldman, (1997) pg, 71).

The inter-war years saw a less formal dress code, more casual, more flesh exposed. Financially liberating, this was a ‘new democracy of dress, [...] the working-class could now afford Sunday and holiday clothes’ (Walton, (2004) pg, 160). Skirt hems were shorter, as were shirt sleeves. ‘This reflects the growing general acceptability of displaying arms and calves; being tanned was now a reflection of health’ (Lucy Faire, (2008) pg, 135). Floral silks and sandals were in vogue for the ladies and Oxford bags trousers with bow ties and brogue shoes for the men, brash, flashy and fun. Fashion trends continued to change throughout to the post-war years ‘and the kinds of clothing generally associated with the beach today were adopted’ (Lucy, Faire, (2008) pg, 137). 


The fickle detailing of youth culture brought its own in-styles and dress codes. When the guitarist and songwriter from the rock band The Who, Pete Townsend, in his ‘Prog’-concept album, about a seaside obsessed teenager entitled Quadrophenia, ‘incorrectly’ described the slim fitting suit favoured by Mods in the sixties as a ‘Zoot’ suit, which was in fact an early 1940s baggy suit, he was expressing the importance of fashion codes. Looking good was all important, and being seen looking good required a suitable location to be noticed. 

‘Dressed right, for a beach fight’ (Pete Townsend. Cut My Hair. (1973)). As well as leisurely strolls along the promenades and piers ‘the jetty, was for those who desired to exhibit their wardrobes’ (Walton, (1983) pg, 209), a good place to show off. Another was music-halls. Music was popular from the Victorian era onwards and seaside music venues were a perfect place for the seaside tribes to congregate. The wealthy-set frequenting discrete hotel palm rooms and sedate assembly-halls for breezy performances by dignified string ensembles. Attempts were made to segregate the social divisions in some venues. ‘Blackpool’s North Pier [...] was a select venue where orchestral concerts were held with a charge for admission to discourage undesirables’ (Trevor Herbert, (2008) pg, 112). 

The lower-classes, by necessity, preferred to congregate around cheap music-halls or public bandstands, where amateur brass bands attracted large audiences with loud rousing tunes. The ‘vulgar’ east coast music-halls brimmed with London working-class folk and traditional working-class behaviour, which received disapproving commentary in the broadsheets. A commentator in The Times noted ‘a Seven-Dials-on-Sea, a perpetual Derby Day [...] a saturnalia of lounging and drunken and card playing humanity’ (The Times (1885) pg, 4).

 As a ploy to encourage the sobriety of the ‘plebeian public’ (Walton, 1998, p. 39), the upper-classes prescribed ‘rational recreation’, the pursuit of morally sound and self-improving activities, such as exposure to ‘high-brow’ music. With this in mind, contests between travelling brass bands performing classical pieces were organised, to focus attentions on friendly competition. The railways happy to provide sponsorship and affordable tickets for travellers in support of their local band, ‘there is persuasive evidence to show that the phenomenon of the cheap day excursion [...] was invented specifically to attract audiences to these contests’ (Trevor Herbert, (2008) pg, 115). The lower-middle and working-classes flocked to these ‘battle of the bands’ events, bringing with them their hard earned money and hard won habits. ‘It should be said that the virtue of these events was sometimes marred by the fist fights that broke out among rival supporters when a controversial result was announced’ (Trevor Herbert, (2008) pg, 115).

The image of the working-classes, fighting, smartly dressed in their best suits or smartest clothes was one that was repeated eight decades later, ‘as with many things in life, traditional habits die hard’(Lucy Faire, (2008) pg, 137). The 1960s witnessed bank holiday beach fights between rival gangs of Mods and Rockers, opposing working-class youths with very different codes of fashion and behaviour. The Rocker’s philosophy of ‘bikes, booze and birds’ (Cafe Racer, (2005)), leather clad with oily Brill-creem quiffs, at odds with the clean-cut Mod pill-popping ‘peacockery,’ who’s neat Italian hairstyles and bespoke suits were proudly worn like battle dress.

The Rockers typically frequenting pubs and cafes, listening to 50s Rock n’ Roll on jukeboxes, British motorcycles parked outside. The scooter riding Mods packing out the dance-halls, amphetamine fuelled and dancing to the latest imported U.S soul records, the music as important to the lifestyle as the clothes ‘they took their name from the sound of Modern Jazz’ (Edward Piller, (2008)). This was an echo from the Victorian era of dance-halls as a preferred venue for the working-classes to congregate and let off steam.

‘I am man who drives a local bus’ (Pete Townsend, The Dirty Jobs, (1973)). The Mods were typically working or lower-middle class kids. Hand tailored suits were expensive; the correct cut was essential to look sharp, to look ‘book’. ‘Mod living is an aphorism for clean living under difficult circumstances’ (Pete Meaden, N.M.E (1775)). Mods, like the lower-class holiday makers of decades past, worked hard to look good, to follow trends, to be a ‘face,’ ‘the right clothes mattered, they showed you were in’ (Anne Allen, The Daily Sketch (1958)). The culture of ‘living for the weekend’, the two days in the week when the working-classes stopped ‘grafting’ and ‘let their hair down’ was life affirming, work hard play hard. ‘The seaside resort offers a break from the routine of work and from the social controls of family, community and workplace’ (BFI, Holiday Escapes (2010)). Traditional brash behaviour, drinking, partying and fighting, that when taken to the seaside, taken on holiday, became even brasher. The escape from the routine of work was amplified, accepted within the cultural group because ‘they were on holiday’, at the seaside, ‘the playground of the workers’ (Partridge (2001)), and dressed to impress.

‘A beach is a place where a man can feel - he’s the only soul in the world that’s real’ (Pete Townsend, Bell Boy, (1973)). As the seaside ‘rucks’ between Mods and Rockers, roared on by tabloid journalism, became established, Mayday bank holiday scooter runs became part of the ‘ritual’ in the Mod fixture, a calendar event for later 1970s modernists to copy and emulate with fanatical fervour. ‘The sacredness or special nature of a place may be connected with the presence of a particular [...] significant event or with something about the location’ (Harvey and Bowman, (2008) pg, 60).     
From one event, the Margate disturbances of 1964 - ‘Mods verses Rockers’, the seaside, for these young working-class youths, became a ‘sacred’ place; a seaside trip was a ‘pilgrimage’. ‘Places inherently express [...] social divisions’ [...] they are [...] spaces (with) certain meanings, association [...] and emotional geography’ (Morgan Nigel and Pritchard Annette, (1999) pg, 6). With the higher-classes now preferring to holiday abroad and an apparent acceptance to ‘over-look’ low-brow activities, the working-classes had claimed the seaside as their own. ‘Once the symbol of high culture [...] the British seaside lost its high social tone in the twentieth century as it’s wealthier visitors responded to the influx of working-class visitors by seeking more exclusive leisure sites elsewhere’ (Morgan Nigel and Pritchard Annette, (1999) Pg 6).                                                                      
The ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, described leisure time as ‘a means to pleasure - a sanctuary from the hassles and hazards of public life’ (Jon Pike (2008) pg, 19). The weekend provided the opportunity for this sanctuary, a release for the working man. The seaside became a focus for this release, a place where they could get away with stereotypically boisterous behaviour. ‘The resort is a separate space, where a special licence exists to break down the usual conventions with boisterous behaviour, indulgence, late nights and sexual liaisons’ (BFI, Holiday Escapes (2010)). My conclusion to this essay is that the seaside has always been ‘a place of escape’ - and -‘has always been a place with its own strict codes of behaviour’, I disagree that escapism and coded conduct cannot co-exist; my argument is that they have developed together simultaneously, hand-in-hand.  

The journey that the seaside has made, throughout its history, has seen what was once a health resort for the upper-classes transformed into a playground for the working-classes, who ultimately cracked the code to  best exploit escapism - ‘the primary point of a holiday [...] is to enjoy yourself, for tomorrow you must work’ (Morgan and Pritchard, (1999) pg, 20).
Richard Searle (May 2012)

Allen Anne. Are you a Trad or a Mod? The Daily Sketch. U.K (1958)

BFI. Resources for teachers and students. Holiday escapes. U.K (2010)

Brunton Deborah. The Healthy Seaside. AA100 The Arts Past And Present. Places and Leisure. The Open University. Milton Keynes. (2008).

Goldman, L. Oh What a Lovely Shore: Brighton in the Twenties through the Eyes of a Schoolboy, Brighton, The Author. (1997) quoted by Lucy Faire. Dressing For The Beach. AA100 The Arts Past And Present. Places and Leisure. The Open University. Milton Keynes. (2008).
Harvey Graham and Bowman Marion. Sacred Space and Landscape , AA100 The Arts Past And Present. Places and Leisure. The Open University. Milton Keynes. (2008).

Lucy Faire. Dressing For The Beach. AA100 The Arts Past And Present. Places and Leisure. The Open University. Milton Keynes. (2008).

Meaden Pete. Interview with Steve Turner. The NME. U.K (1975)
Morgan Nigel and Pritchard Annette. Power and Politics at the Seaside. University of Exeter Press. U.K (1999)

Partridge Andy. Bungalow. An XTC Resource. (2001)

Pike Jon. Leisure And The Purpose Of Life.  AA100 The Arts Past And Present. Places and Leisure. The Open University. Milton Keynes. (2008).

Piller Edward. Mods. BBC Radio 4. (2008).

Townsend Pete. Bell Boy. Quadrophenia. Track Records. (LP) UK (1973).
Townsend Pete. Cut My Hair. Quadrophenia. Track Records. (LP) UK (1973). 
Townsend Pete. The Dirty Jobs. Quadrophenia. Track Records. (LP) UK (1973).                     

The Times, 16 September (1885) quoted by Trevor Herbert. Victorian Seaside Music. AA100 The Arts Past And Present. Places and Leisure. The Open University. Milton Keynes. (2008).

Trevor Herbert. Victorian Seaside Music. AA100 The Arts Past And Present. Places and Leisure. The Open University. Milton Keynes. (2008).

Stazz. Cafe Racer. net. Forum thread (2005).

Walton, J.K. ‘The seaside and the holiday crowd’ in Toulmin, V, Russell, P. and Topple, S. The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon: Edwardian Britain on Film, London, British Film Institute, (2004) quoted by Lucy Faire. Dressing For The Beach, AA100 The Arts Past And Present. Places and Leisure. The Open University. Milton Keynes. (2008).  

Walton, J.K. Blackpool, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, (1998) quoted by Colin Chant. Technology And The Seaside: Blackpool And Benidorm.AA100 The Arts Past And Present. Places and Leisure. The Open University. Milton Keynes. (2008)

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