'Neck-to-Knee' to Nude Bathing
When the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay just over 200
years ago they found the locals, the Aborigines, naked and unashamed,
sensibly attired for the warm Australian climate. But those early settlers
brought their old English morality with them. It was indecent to be nude.
Even at the beginning of the 20th century the British used horse drawn
bathing boxes to avoid being seen entering the ocean for a swim.
During the early settlement days in Australia some of the
British soldiers apparently found the weather and the white sandy beaches
just too tempting, and often went swimming in the surf, in the nude! In
1833, to preserve decency in this newly found colony, the Governor of the
day banned sea bathing completely during daylight hours. It was not until
1902, after a lot of civil disobedience and many arrests, that this law was
finally revoked. Of course bathing was a complete cover up in those days,
with some of the ladies' costumes containing up to ten metres of material!
Also, bathing was segregated with separate hours or different parts of the
beach for men and women. Once again civil disobedience won out and mixed
bathing eventually became the norm.
As sea bathing became more and more popular during the
1920s and 30s huge pavilions were built on the more popular beaches. These
provided changing and shower rooms, refreshments, and usually had enclosed
nude sunbathing areas (separate ones for males and females of course).
The progress of bathing costumes over the years is a
story in itself, with each agonising step drawing protests and cries of
immorality. In 1907 one lady was arrested for wearing a costume that exposed
her arms and feet. Then in 1915 surfboard riding was introduced into
Australia, by a teenage girl would you believe! She was labelled a hussy
because the legs of her suit had crept up above her knees.
The trend toward freedom continued and by the late1930s
it was backless costumes for the ladies and, shock horror, men going
topless. After the war the two piece became popular, and then during the
1960s the bikini emerged. But again it was not without trauma, many girls
being ordered off the beach or arrested because their costumes did not make
the bare minimum requirements.
From then on it was a matter of less and less. The
bikinis just got smaller and smaller with some rather ingenious methods
being used to keep those tiny scraps of material in place. Men’s costumes
had also diminished, and the thin, soft material tended to reveal more than
During this entire process nude bathing on some of the
more remote beaches had always been furtively taking place, but during the
late1960s and early 1970s it became quite popular, and more or less condoned
by the general public and the authorities. Finally, on the 15th of February
1975, the South Australian Government, under the Premiership of Don Dunstan,
declared nude bathing legal on Maslin Beach, making it the first legal
‘dress optional’ beach in Australia.
Horse drawn English bathing
boxes (circa 1900).
Sydney's Manly Beach bathing pavilion built in
A daring 2 piece costume of the 1950s.
All the genital area had to be air-brushed out of the photographs until 1972.
An ABC TV crew record the first attempt at a legal nude beach at Stockton
Beach near Newcastle in 1972. The police closed it down the next day.