Monday, December 17, 2012

Skinny Dipping: A Little History


We have more than a passing interest in the vintage swimming costume here at Front Free Endpaper but don't claim to be an historical authority. Nonetheless, a little light bedtime reading of newspaper clippings about the practise of naked swimming the nineteenth century make it clear that the somewhat 'off the cuff' characterisation of the Victorian period as a time of repression and modesty might not be the whole picture. The small sample of material we have looked at seems to suggest that the idea of men and boys wearing 'clothes' to go swimming (i.e. some form of 'drawers') was one which only came in very slowly over a period of half a century or more. In the newspapers of the day, the first references to the need for drawers to be worn for bathing in public occurs in the late 1850s and early 60s but the issue is debated often, all the way up to the 1890s and it seems only by the twentieth century is it both socially essential and legally enforced that men should not bathe naked in public (the appearance of boys swimming naked in public on a regular basis continues at least into the 1930s).

One particularly amusing and instructive clipping is this letter published in Reynolds's Illustrated Newspaper in September 1899.

"GOD'S HANDIWORK DESPISED
Sir.- Your delightful paragraph about Felixstowe in last week's issue prompts me to offer a few considerations on the subject of bathing costume. During the last fifteen years or so there has arisen a diseased and artificial dread of viewing the human body. We see the tendency widespread. Those detestable vices known as bathing drawers have crept in, even upon our quiet rivers, to hide our self-made shame from the unspotted swans, and are enforced at closed and high-walled swimming baths. I begin to feel more and more Walt Whitman's respect for the animals who never reach our depth of degradation.

Is it really true that the modern Puritan regards the supple forms of youth - "the fair young larch-poles of our Empire" as "Branco" calls them - as being unclean and impure? Pink coral statues, with the breath of hay - are even they corrupt to the alleged moralists' view? Perhaps; for the Puritan's mind is coarse and it is the revolt against himself that makes him a Puritan. What is called morality is convention. It cannot be in sanity that men can say that the human shape looks better and more seemly with a piece of red rag round it.

I will only briefly assert, as a diver of some skill and a devoted bather, that water garments are insanitary, preventing much that is most beneficial and threatening much that all would wish to escape. A good half of the benefit of swimming consists of drying in the sun and open air. Through drawers the wind strikes chilly and the pores of the skin are kept covered. I will only say on the "morality" side, that if these very "modest" people would study the origin and purpose of clothing in the history of savage races, they would discover that garments were mostly worn to allure others and that no attraction is considered to be so strong as that which is unseen.

I am glad to see that on the Thames they have apparently gone a little too far even for the heavy British public and that there seem a chance of a good row. May the day come when only in absolutely public places will anything so ugly and inconvenient be tolerated as clothing for a swim.
B.A. Cantab.
George Ives"

If the name of the author of this letter seems familiar, it is probably because, if you are a student of gay history and literature, you may know him from another angle. For all the poetry and forceful argument of this letter, it is possible that the author of The Greco-Roman View of Youth may have been arguing here to maintain an entirely more contemporary view! Ives was also the author of a couple of volumes of Uranian poetry and one of the founders of the secretive homophile Order of Chaeronea and The British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. However, mixed motives aside, it is an interesting letter and one which would indicate that naked bathing in semi-public environments was still an ongoing issue in public discourse even as late as 1899.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Although I grew up with a public pool that was not gender segregated (and we always wore swimming suits (1960s and 1970s), I've heard and seen reports that male-only pools (YMCA or school pools) allowed or required--depending on who's telling the story--nude bathing through the 1950s and even the 1960s.

 
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