Ever since the very earliest days of European colonisation in Australia, and likely before, swimming at the beach has been a popular Sydney pastime. Yet swimming, as we know it today, is a far cry from what those who lived in the 19th century or well into the 20th would have been familiar with.
In fact, until the early 1900s, daylight swimming was illegal! In 1902, Mr William Gocher broke the law by engaging in the scandalous conduct of swimming in public during the day. Others soon followed his lead and the laws against swimming when the sun was up were overturned.
Yet even after swimming became common during the day, there continued to be a moral conundrum concerning propriety, and what was appropriate to wear for swimming, especially as daylight swimming allowed bathers to be seen! Many people were offended by what they saw as inappropriate “exhibitionistic” clothing, which displayed much more of the figure than people in the early 20th century were used to. Concessions had to be made to avoid people drowning, but swimwear was encouraged to be as discrete as possible.
As a result, many councils enforced their own laws which imposed minimum standards for beachwear. One of the more famous of these laws was proposed by Waverly Council in 1907. They tried to impose a law that required men to wear bathers which had sleeves to the elbow and a skirt extending to their knees. Although many supported strict regulations about swimwear, these laws went too far!
One of the first actions of the Surf Bathing Association of NSW, which was the precursor of Surf Life Saving, Australia, was to protest against these proposed requirements. They were concerned that the bathers would emasculate men and organised a public protest which took place at Bondi, Manly and Coogee. Men flocked to the beaches wearing women’s clothes, underwear and even curtains or tablecloths and essentially made a mockery of the proposed rules. The general public and media both viewed the protests very positively and the council abandoned their new laws.
If you weren’t swimming, social mores dictated that people visiting the beach would be dressed as they would be for any other event or outing. As the image above shows, men wore suits and women, full-length dresses or skirts, hats and long sleeves.