Australia’s greatest moral battle was fought on the beaches as churches sought to enforce who could swim — when they could swim — and what they could wear — the war of the dick togs.
Going to the beach only emerged as a popular leisure activity around the time of federation.
Changing into a bathing suit and plunging into the waves might seem as natural as riding a horse or kicking a ball. But in the early 1900s, Australians risked arrest for a daylight dip and ‘surf bathing’ remained a contentious issue across much of the country.
It was all about sex. A great moral battle raged across the nation.
“An abomination,” thundered Melbourne’s Archbishop Carr.
“The thin end of the wedge,” agreed Archbishop Duhig.
Not wanting to be outdone by papists, Reverend Adamson of the Methodist Conference chimed in: “Hideously immoral.”
“Cutting at the very taproot of national life,” wrote a correspondent to the Adelaide Register.
Doomsayers predicted the end of civilisation as we knew it, a descent into Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of traditional Christian marriage, and the wrath of a vengeful God. It’s a very slippery slope. Won’t someone think of the children!
The issue? Gender-neutral beaches, or in the parlance of the day, mixed bathing.
When the Australian colonies federated on 1 January 1901, municipal laws across much of the country prohibited swimming in the ocean during daylight hours. Numerous jurisdictions echoed section 77 of the New South Wales Police Act.
“Whosoever bathes in any part of Sydney Cove, or in any waters exposed to view from any wharf, street, public place, dwelling house in or near the said city or towns between the hours of six o’clock in the morning and eight in the evening shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding one pound.”
Men monopolised municipal beaches, bathing naked during the hours of darkness.
Increasing numbers of swimmers saw the morning session extended to 8 am. But that failed to satisfy the growing population of surf bathers. Other councils followed suit after Randwick Council legalised all-day surf bathing in December 1902. However, numerous new regulations replaced the old prohibition. Towns with big enough beaches segregated them — men here, women over there. Otherwise, councils stipulated separate times for male and female bathing.
The erections on Cottesloe Beach
Most local government authorities also banned wearing swimming costumes on the beach. Bathers had to change from daywear into swimsuits in bathing sheds, walk directly to the water with no loitering and, when they exited the waves, stride briskly back to the change rooms to change into streetwear before they sat on the sand.
In 1906, Freemantle’s Councillor Nicolas demanded: “The works committee go and look at the erections on Cottesloe beach.”
He did not refer to proud, blood-swollen penises sprouting on the sand like so many rampant sea slugs.
He spoke, of course, of dressing sheds.
Mr Nicolas thought the existing structures sufficient. However, Councillor Stevens desired the construction of mobile sheds that could be wheeled to the water’s edge. That would preclude bathers emerging from the surf and promenading across the beach with their scanty neck-to-knee bathing costumes clinging indecently to their bodies.
Predictions of a slippery slope proved prescient. Once swimmers achieved the right to bathe during daylight hours, they then agitated for gender-neutral beaches. Families wished to visit the beach as a group. They wanted to have picnics. They yearned to dip their toes in the shallows and frolic on the sand together. Few Australian women could swim, so men wished to teach their wives and daughters how to ensure their safety.
‘We told you so’, wailed the wowsers. But no one listened, so they then claimed religious discrimination. If men and women gathered willy-nilly on the shore, they whined; it would prevent good, decent, God-fearing Christians opposed to such debauchery from enjoying a day at the beach.
(And there’d be floods, fire, famine, locust plagues etc.)
No good — councils eventually surrendered to popular sentiment and desegregated the beaches, sometimes jolted into action by a spate of female drownings.
But wowsers, as we all know, never give up attempting to impose their beliefs on everyone else. So, they moved on to dictating dick togs. But without the dicks. Because Australia’s moral guardians insisted on swimwear designed to deny the existence of genitalia.
No camel toes or visible penis lines on Australian beaches.
Male and female swimsuits needed to cover the body from neck to knee with shoulders shrouded to the elbow and necklines no lower than two inches below the throat. A skirt of between six to twenty-four inches in length should encircle the entire waist of both men and women. Loincloths would not suffice. A belt should be worn to prevent mischievous ocean currents from dacking unsuspecting swimmers. The fabric should be black or dark blue and thick enough to avoid accentuating the outlines of the body. Not tight-fitting.
Brisbane Council, among others, required housewives to visit City Hall and take a copy of the approved pattern.
Even when Brisbane eventually allowed unskirted swimsuits, it required males 14 and over to wear a ‘V’ underneath their one-piece — a sturdy jock-style garment designed to compress the male genitalia and visually desex the male swimmer. Tucking underwear. Damn your dick togs to a fiery hell.
Beach inspectors and police checked that: “bathing costumes were not indecent or inadequate or that the material thereof was not too thin or in a proper state of repair or is, for any reason, unsuitable.”
Surf lifesaving associations, then in their infancy, complained the skirted swimsuits cost lives. Both swimmers and their rescuers risked becoming entangled in the skirts.
Scores of men rocked up to the beach in drag. They borrowed dresses and skirts from their wives, mums and sisters and camped it up to the horror of municipal authorities.
The dragged-up swimmers intimidated the wowsers en masse, but cops, clergymen and council beach inspectors waited for quieter days and picked off the dick-tog wearers one by one, fining them a shilling here and a shilling there.
Female surf bathers
However, eventually, wowsers found easier targets. Women became enamoured of the beach, and male officialdom transferred their attention to harassing them. Until well into the 1960s, beach inspectors patrolled city beaches across Australia, armed with tape measures to check women’s bikinis complied with civic requirements.
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