Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fancy a swim? Going for a dip 18th century style.

Martha Washington's bathing dress

At Mount Vernon, they have a wonderful new museum showcasing all kinds of things from the Washingtons' home. Some things I found particularly cool were George's dressing table, the family silver and china, a wing chair from their bedroom and, especially, Martha's bathing dress. I have never seen an example of an 18th century swim suit before so this was especially interesting to me. 

Though water therapy has been around since ancient times, the 18th century saw a revival in the popularity of going to spas and "taking the waters" for one's health, especially amongst the upper class. Water cures were said to cure a wide range of conditions. People both swam in it and drank it. Today, in some spas, they still have similar treatments. When I was in Greece, Thalassotherapy (from thalassa which means the sea) was offered at most of the hotel spas. I tried it out. Very cool. Mostly it's a series of pools, one very highly salinated so you float, another with salts and essential oils, and the last with a current. And no, I didn't drink any. Ick.

Engraving of women taking mud baths.
Image from the Science Photo Library.

Taking the waters at the pump room, Bath, 1784.

And a funny story from History Undressed:

There was a famous scandal of Sir Richard Worsley, the Governor of the Isle fo Wight…Apparently while his wife bathed nude in a bathhouse, he lifted his friend, Captain Maurice Bisset upon his shoulders to see his wife naked. How does the saying go? “What’s yours is mine…” Sir Richard Worsley and his wife Lady Worsley ended up getting a divorce later on, and it was found that he had in essence prostituted his wife to many men, however she didn’t seem to mind too much… At the time her husband helped his friend peek at her, she laughed it off. Her lovers have been numbered around 27…

But back to the dress.

When Mrs. Washington would go to Berkeley Springs, Virginia, for her daughter, Patsy's, epilepsy, she would wear this gown to keep her decent. The top picture may show the back view of the gown, because in the exhibit, the neckline was relatively high and rounded. The slit shown may have been at the back for ease of dressing, as I can't imagine Martha wearing a slit that low in the front... But perhaps I am mistaken. If anyone knows for sure, please correct me. I would have loved to take pictures to show, but photography wasn't allowed. Bummer. The above picture is courtesy of

The dress is made of course linen with a blue and white gingham pattern. Its a medium to dark blue, like an indigo. Down the wearer's right side of the dress, along the seam, are three or four patchwork pieces of some varying, but similar, pieces of the blue gingham. At the bottom are lead weights about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. These would keep the dress from rising in the water. From the right side, you can see two of these weights, along the side seam, held in place inside a rectangular patch, with a seam separating the two pieces. Below is a sketch of what I can remember from the exhibit. PS, oops, the picture shows the wearer's left side with the patchwork. I don't know what was on the left side, since the dress was at an angle in it's case.

As for the other pieces I mentioned, a few notes:

George Washington's dressing table followed him from his presidency to Mount Vernon. The top opens to revel a mirror. I love antique mirrors because you look in, see your face, and I think of all the people throughout history who have seen their face looking back at them. Oh to see the hall of mirrors! Imagine what they have seen!

George's dressing table.
Image from George Washington Wired.

I thought the wing chair was interesting because I had no idea wing chairs were originally for the ill or weak. Now people have them throughout the house, however in the 18th century, they were mostly only found in private rooms, like bed chambers. The wing sides being for the purpose of keeping away any drafts. The chair at Mount Vernon has casters, or wheels, and I think they said it was the only example of the chair like this with chippendale motif and casters on the back legs, as well as the front. 


  1. Talk about taking the plunge! I knew about gowns like this, but not about the weights! Thx for the info!

  2. Wonderful! I have never seen any extant example of 18th century bathing clothes! Thank you!

  3. Leather sealant is the easiest way to apply a finish to your leather repairs, Ensure the areas you are applying the leather sealant are clean and dry before use.
    For more information kindly visit:- Leather Sealant