Swimsuit Fashions via the Demon Barber of Fleet Street


Summer is almost over here in the northern hemisphere, but we barely discussed beaches and bikinis! Well, let’s just rectify the situation in the most Frock Flicks way we can with a look at my personal favorite swim style, the outfits worn by Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, as designed by Colleen Atwood for the movie Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)! OK, this musical is supposedly set in the 1840s, but the Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter is set in a deeply gothic Victorian London that mixes 1820s tight trousers and cutaway coats on the men with bustle gowns and hoop skirts on the ladies. It’s a bit random except for the gorgeous gothic color palette. And the “By the Sea” scene is definitely a riff on bathing costumes circa 1880 to 1910.


Victorian Bathing Costumes

So just what did people wear to the beach at the turn of the 19th century? A lot of clothing, that’s what. Men’s swimming suits were often a knit one-piece with long-ish legs and sleeves, and the suit buttoned up the front. Dark colors were most common, but stripes were also used and have become iconic.

Cartoon from Punch magazine (UK) showing men's swimsuit, 1877.

Cartoon from Punch magazine (UK) showing men’s swimsuit, 1877.

Seaside postcard, 1910.

Seaside postcard, 1910.


Women’s swimming suits were even more covered-up. Most bathing costumes consisted of a tunic over bloomers, worn with tights, shoes, and cap. The tunic either echoed popular styles of everyday dress in shape, neckline, sleeves, and trim, or a nautical fashion was common. Sailor-blouse tops or middy blouses and pleated skirts gave a very sporty look to women’s Victorian bathing costumes.

Women's swimming dresses in Peterson's Magazine (US), 1883

Women’s swimming dresses in Peterson’s Magazine (US), 1883

Women's swimming dresses in Femina magazine (Danish), 1898.

Women’s swimming dresses in Femina magazine (Danish), 1898.

Patterns for women's swimming dresses, The Delineator (US), 1903.

Patterns for women’s swimming dresses, The Delineator (US), 1903.

Seaside postcard, 1910.

Seaside postcard, 1910.

After 1900, a little more skin started to show on both men and women with shorter sleeves or no sleeves and wider necklines. But as the photo below shows, women were wearing corsets under their swim dresses as long as they wore corsets in general!

Women & man at the beach (US), 1900-10.

Women & man at the beach (US), 1900-10.


Swimsuit Costumes in Sweeney Todd

According to costume designer Colleen Atwood, the director wanted the look to be “mid-Victorian without being too precious,” and she tried to combine elements from 1830 to 1865. Of course, in the song “By the Sea,” Mrs. Lovett is dreaming of when she and Sweeney Todd can run off together — “What I dream, if the business stays as good? / Where I’d really like to go in a year or so.” Perhaps this is in the farther future then because the swimming costumes and the seaside promenade costumes look a good 20 years later (Helena Bonham Carter also wears a red and white bustle gown). Also, the song lyric is reverse of what the final costumes are: “Oh, I can see us now in our bathing dresses / You in a nice navy, and me stripes perhaps.” Atwood did note that this scene was radically different in costume design: “It was like a separate movie, in a way,” she said in an interview with the NY Daily News.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).

Director Tim Burton with Johnny Depp behind the scenes.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).

Colleen Atwood said this swimsuit was not one of Depp’s faves at first. But it’s pretty spot-on for a late Victorian or Edwardian men’s swimsuit.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).

In this behind-the-scenes shot, you can see clearly that Mrs. Lovett’s costume is just bloomers and there’s no skirt; the top only has a pleated peplum.

2007 Sweeney Todd

In the movie, we first see the pair from behind. Mrs. Lovett’s costume has a sailor-style blouse. Those type of bathing machines are in beach photos through the 1910s.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

His outfit: Totally Victorian. Her outfit: So close! But she really needs a skirt over the bloomers.

2007 Sweeney Todd

I just hope they’re wearing sunscreen.



So what do you wear to the beach?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Facebook Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

14 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    No wonder women were lowered into the water using the bathing carts/caravan/wagon. With all their clothes it’s a wonder they could move.*I text tongue firmly planted in my cheeks* On the whole, I like the bathing suits, but I wonder if the suffragettes had a different look?
    BTW are you podcasting Victoria when PBS airs it?

  2. Charity

    I love Collen Atwood. She blows me away every single time. Pretty much whenever I see a costume drama / fantasy film that makes me squeal with joy, it’s her work. I love how incredibly detailed all of it is. *sigh*

  3. SarahV

    Can you *imagine* trying to swim in that get-up? Listen, I’ve never been a fan of itsy-bitsy women’s swimwear, but getting sodden on multiple levels of wet wool(?) in the surf is almost certainly a recipe for drowning.

    I think there was a perfect epicenter of acceptable women’s swimwear in the 1950’s. Even if you had the gumption (and tummy) to go for a 2 piece, the briefs didn’t have your ass cheeks hanging out.

    • MoHub

      In the Olympics in the ’20s and ’30s, the women’s swimsuits were made of wool and absorbed a tremendous amount of water, so they were never able to turn in the kind of performances we see no only now, but even the kind that happened in the ’40s and ’50s.

      It’s amazing that none of the early swimmers drowned.

    • Kendra

      Seriously. I was looking at all the Olympic gymnasts and saying “all their leotards make them look like they have ass creep/impending wedgie!”

      • MoHub

        Well, yes. Now it’s at the other extreme—for swimmers as well. And the tribute to the host country per the Brazilians.

  4. Andrea Somerville

    I don’t care what anyone says: Johnny Depp is & always will be the hotness!! I loved the whole goth Victorian vibe throughout this whole movie & thought HBC & JD had great chemistry too.

    I LOVE musicals & this movie was my 1st time ever being introduced to the story or the music. Unfortunately, while I loved the movie & its look, only 1 song got me: the song Johnny sings nearer the beginning, when he’s envisioning how he’ll “use” his razors & barbershop to exact his revenge. If that was his real voice(thinking it was since he’s in a band in real life,) he sung it very well!

    • MoHub

      You need to see the PBS recording of the stage Sweeney, with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. The movie is a joke.

  5. A damsel in this dress

    I have recently made both male and female bathing suits from 1887 and we love them! easy to swim in, dry fast, comfy to wear and they look brilliant. and since it covered us from the sun, we were not too hot either. I was impressed by the funky cap – protects both the face and the nape! my staple beach outfit now:-)

  6. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I used to wear a men’s unitard for a bathing suit. Now I wear a since one piece, but I still miss my unitard. It was so comfy

  7. Nina

    I almost never swim (at the beach) wearing a “modern” swimsuit only (and if I do, it’s not two-piece, that’s for sure), I usually wear a tunic or at least a t-shirt on top: first, I don’t get sunburnt (that sunscreen doesn’t help beyond a certain point) and second, the water is usually very cold! In a 18 degrees celsius sea it’s no wonder ladies and gents in their skimpy suits last only a couple of minutes at most, haha. To be fair, I don’t swim in wool, usually cotton. And on top of that, I usually wear a turban draped over my head (against the sun and wind), my favorite accessory. Which brought me in a roundabout way to the disgraceful recent French seaside burkini ban. On top of it being ridiculous to ban a burkini outright, don’t they realize their ancestors showed that same little amount of skin too? I’m not a prude, and I certainly think it’s great women have a choice to wear as little a bikini as they want (and for men, speedos, haha), but sometimes the choice to wear a little more is treated as suspect…

  8. Amanda

    I live in NW Florida. I can’t imagine being at the beach, in wool, in the summer. I can’t figure out how they didn’t die of heat stroke. I get why people don’t wear a lot now. In the summer, the water itself is usually in the 80s.

  9. Alex Cove

    Hey do you know where I could get one of these Male suits just the like one in the movie?