Healthy, Beautiful, Exciting

Grotesquely parading their wares, draped with silk sashes and crowned with paste tiaras, beauty queens are definitely not PC. It is therefore very fitting that beauty contests in the UK started at the seaside, the home of kitsch, vulgarity and escapism. Mid 20th century Britons flocked to the seaside as an antidote to austerity, and girls parading around magnificent outdoor lidos in figure hugging swimwear, clutching numbers in their hands fitted the bill perfectly.

Be extravagant,
Be lucky,
Be clairvoyant,
Be a sport or an angel,
Imagine yourself as a courtier, or as a queen
Accept your freedom

W H Auden from The Way to the Sea (1936, GPO documentary)

In this set of paintings of beauty queens we consider whether these girls found in photographs from the 50s, 60s and 70s were powerfully controlling the crowds with their sexuality or being exploited by those who watched what has since been deemed a humiliating spectacle.

Beyond feminist readings these paintings examine the cracks in the girls' beautiful veneers and rather than depicting them as self-assured show-offs they are awkward, slightly embarrassed and even bored. Despite this indignity and being used as promotional material for the delights of the British seaside holiday these girl-next-doors have an underlying sense of pride at their queen for a day achievement. As Lara Freigel notes in the book Modernism on Sea: 'in her ecstatic smile she demonstrates that by revelling in the excesses of the seaside she has accepted its freedom'*

Seaside beauty contests fell out of popularity in line with the decline of the coastal resorts as foreign holidays and guaranteed sunshine became more available. These girls are now museum pieces and embody nostalgic feelings many people have about British culture countered by a tinge of the dangerous early twentieth century obsession with outdoor living and healthy bodies.


Adapted from the press release to 'O Dreamland' exhibition

Lara Feigel, 'Kiss Me Quick: The Aesthetics of Excess in 1930s Literature an Film' in Modernism on Sea: Art and Culture at the British Seaside edited by Lara Frigel and Alexandra Harris (Peter Lang Ltd, 2009)
O Dreamland Exhibition Arty 23
Seaside Special
8: Nostalgia


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