Bath time is apparently going the way of landlines and face-to-face communication in becoming rapidly extinct. While a bath might be as central to the idea of home as a hearth, it appears increasing numbers of us are spurning the porcelain tub for the power shower. One recent survey found that more than a third of Britons only bathe four times a year (and two of those occasions are in hotel bathrooms).
Even Cussons, makers of Imperial Leather soap, a cornerstone of the traditional bathing experience since 1768, has witnessed a significant drop in soap sales. A study it commissioned noted there had been a three per cent decline in people using a “bath product” since 1996. Meanwhile, the market for shower gels, creams, lotions, and foams has grown exponentially.
The difference between showers and baths is both temporal and temperamental. Who has time for a bath? Fast, convenient, economic: showers have a utilitarian purposefulness that befits our productivity-obsessed contemporary mode. A quick once-over and out you jump, ready for the day.
Baths, on the other hand, are a positively analogue way of scrubbing up. They are slow and contemplative. All that time spent waiting for the tub to fill, then the meditative lolling, the body scrubs and face masks and, if advertising is to be believed, the accompanying soft music, chocolate and candlelight.
This reframing of bath time as a self-indulgent luxury — a moment of “me time” — has become a powerful driver of upscale bath products, whether that’s Chanel’s No 5-fragranced foams and gels, or Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew bath oil. Along the way, bathing has become peculiarly gendered, despite evidence that men, too, enjoy a long, hot bath.
The conspicuously well-maintained Tom Ford professes to a five-a-day habit. “And, on a day when I’m particularly stressed, every hour or two,” the designer told film-makers in the documentary Visionaries: Inside the Creative Mind. “I just lie in the water and kind of think. Or not think. It’s intensified as I get older. I don’t think my mother would have ever let me take five a day.”
Bath time has evolved from a way of getting clean to a way of getting calm. Noella Gabriel, head of product development at Elemis, identifies bathing’s spiritual aspect. “The vibrations created from having the body surrounded completely by water induce a deep level of relaxation,” she says. Laura Mercier, whose Honey Bath foam comes accessorised with its own wooden dipper, says: “At the end of the day, I like nothing better than to have a relaxing bath; it’s a ritual for me and a necessary indulgence.” (Daphne Guinness’s former neighbours might disagree: they’ve twice sued the heiress for water damage caused by her repeatedly overflowing bathtub; she was apologetic and in 2012, it was ruled she should pay for the repairs.)
There’s an aesthetic and philosophical appeal to bathing that’s entirely absent from the shower stall. With its relationship to baptism, to cleansing rites and water rituals, there’s a whiff of the ancients about a bath. The activity has a rich artistic heritage, inspiring paintings by Degas, Cézanne and Picasso, and a photograph of war reporter Lee Miller, taking a dip in Hitler’s private bathtub: bathing as political statement.
On film, showers are places of pain or peril (Carrie, Psycho), while baths are where we might find Julia Roberts, decorated in bubbles, screeching along to Prince. What with Vanity Fair immersing what must be a record number of celebrities for glossy spreads — Whoopi Goldberg, Angelina Jolie, Miley Cyrus, Jon Hamm — and Kate Moss having spent, surely, a third of her professional life in the bath, the setting has become such an established cliché of contemporary photography and fashion the style has acquired its own epithet: “bathtub mermaid”.
Baths are where the good stuff happens, the thinking, the life plotting, the discovery of displacement theory, as in the case of Archimedes. They work as a palliative; warm water soothes. As Sylvia Plath writes in The Bell Jar (1963): “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say: ‘I’ll go take a hot bath.’ ” For artistic types, a wallow in water seems to have a stimulating effect. Christian Dior sketched couture collections from his tub, while Agatha Christie concocted murders from hers. Virginia Woolf conceived a follow-up to A Room of One’s Own (1929) after experiencing “a sudden influx of ideas” while afloat.
There’s more to bathing than simply keeping clean.
We asked FT readers about their bath time habits - from frequency, to rubber ducks to ‘eureka moments’. This is what you told us . . .
● 55 per cent of you take a bath just once a month. The shower rules
● 21 per cent of you admit to having a rubber duck
● 70 per cent of you wouldn’t buy a house without a bath
● 3 per cent of you bathe more than once a day (some may even hit Tom Ford’s five-a-day habit)
● 41 per cent of you have had a ‘eureka moment’ while in the bath
● Women enjoy baths more than men, according to 85 per cent of you