By Kasia Stempniak
Few destinations are more synonymous with summer than the beach. This year, that association is being tested as fears of the spreading pandemic have fueled closures across the United States. In Europe, officials in beachside communities are experimenting with creative ways of attracting tourists to their shores while still ensuring social distance practices. One solution that has garnered a fair amount of international press is the beach ‘cubicle.’ On the Greek island of Santorini, large plates of plexiglass encircle lounge chairs on the shore, creating an enclosed space that ostensibly protects sunbathers from infection. Although made from modern materials, these types of ephemeral structures designed to regulate bodily propriety and hygiene at the beach have their roots in nineteenth-century bathing culture and the invention of the cabine de plage.
To find out more, let us take a much-needed break from 2020 and travel back in time to when vacationing at the beach was just starting to develop into a widespread cultural activity. Imagine the year is 1890 and summer has just begun. Along with thousands of other Parisians, you decide to escape the city heat to Trouville, a Norman coastal town whose beaches have been immortalized by painters like Eugène Boudin and Camille Corot. An ever-expanding network of trains allows you to reach the resort town within a couple of hours. You arrive on the beach, ready to take a plunge in the cool ocean water, only to be faced with a cumbersome sartorial problem: how to safely and comfortably change into your costume de bain, or bathing suit, away from prying eyes.
As beach resorts became fashionable destinations in the late nineteenth century, codes of bodily propriety clashed with the rise of a leisure-obsessed society. Lauded for its salutary effects on the body, bathing was a popular activity for a wide swath of the population. As more resorts opened in the nineteenth century and transportation networks rendered travel more feasible, beaches became popular summer getaways for those eager to bathe outside the city. Taking a dip in the ocean, however, meant one had to wear bathing outfits that conformed to the body. To address concerns of modesty and privacy, new spaces were created, like the cabine de plage, or beach hut, that allowed beachgoers a safe (or relatively safe) space to change their clothing. These structures were already appearing in visual depictions of coastal life from the first half of the nineteenth century. Charles Mercereau’s painting of the Basque coastal town St. Jean-de-Luz in the 1850s depicts dozens of grey beach huts neatly lined along the coast.
Forty years later, posters advertising coastal towns nearly always included cabines de plage in their images. For example, an 1890 poster advertising the Norman town of Trouville foregrounds a shore bustling with activity as beachgoers enter and exit red-and-white striped beach tents, or cabines, lining the shore.
Class and the cabine de plage
Unsurprisingly, class and money dictated the type of cabines de plages one could rent. Eugène d’Auriac’s 1866 guidebook for tourists offers precise details on the categories of cabine de plage most resorts offered. On the lower end of the pay scale one could rent a “cabine pour domestique,” a cabin for a servant, while huts equipped with warm water for a foot bath could be rented for higher prices. For those less willing to walk on the shore in their costume de bain and who had more spending flexibility, there was the cabine roulante. Known as bathing-machines in England and the United States, cabines roulantes were mobile beach huts usually pulled by horses. Both types of changing rooms, the cabine de plage as well as the cabine roulante can be seen in the 1890 poster of Trouville from earlier. Given the privacy and convenience of a horse-pulled cabine roulante, it is not surprising that royalty preferred this method of bathing. Queen Isabella of Spain, for example, was fond of vacationing in Trouville and favored the cabine roulante to take a dip in the water. They were also a favorite among the bourgeoisie. The widely circulated fashion journal La Dernière mode often features scenes of fashionable beach life that includes illustrations of women in their costume de bain walking near the cabines roulantes. An illustration from an 1898 issue includes a group of young women wading in water while their cabine roulante looms in the background.
Eugène Boudin, one of the most prolific artists of nineteenth-century French beach life, frequently depicted scenes of the bourgeoisie visiting Norman coastal towns. His 1863 painting “On the Beach at Trouville” includes a woman dressed in a blue costume de bain rising from the water into her horse-drawn cabine roulante.
Dangers of the cabine de plage
While practical in nature, cabines de plage were often the subject of comical stories or caricatural drawings in newspapers. Humorous accounts of beachgoers walking into the wrong cabine de plage pepper summer dispatches in newspapers. These amusing but benign occurrences could also give way to more sinister incidents. As an enclosed space, beach huts betrayed a sense of safety. The lack of locked doors rendered the cabine an easy target for petty criminals. In one court case in Caen from 1875, the plaintiff took both the hotel and city to court claiming they were responsible for valuables stolen from his cabine. The court declared that neither the hotel nor the city shared any responsibility for the theft since cabines de plage were not extensions of the hotel. Underscoring the purely sartorial function of the cabine de plage, the court’s ruling stated that beach huts were solely designed “to shield those inside of it from the public’s eye” (Pandectes françaises: 1870-1877, 208-209). The roving eye of the public invoked by the court presented a problem for beachgoers, especially for women. Dozens of voyeuristic accounts in newspapers describe women walking in and out of cabines. The newspaper La Vie parisienne often featured drawings of coastal life featuring buxom women in tight swimsuits. An issue from 1863, for example, provides a summer update on life at the Norman coastal city of Dieppe alongside illustrations of women emerging from their cabines in revealing costume de bain.
The cabine de plage allowed nineteenth-century tourists to preserve a certain façade of modesty while also allowing them to enjoy the benefits of bathing. But these ephemeral structures also exacerbated anxieties surrounding 19th-century corporeal practices. Visual and written descriptions of the cabines de plages reveal the fraught relationship between bodily practices and public space that beachgoers continue to navigate today. The COVID-era plexiglass beach cubicles popping in some parts of the world this summer are a world away from the cabines of Trouville or Caen. Yet in providing privacy and personal space, we might think of the nineteenth-century cabine de plage as the original ‘social distancing’ beach structure.
Kasia Stempniak is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Hamilton College. Her research focuses on French literature and the material and visual culture of fashion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is currently working on a book entitled Inhabiting Fashion: Body, Clothing, and Space in Nineteenth-Century France.