When you go to the beach these days you can expect to see bronzed bodies, usually covered only by thin strips of material, laying out in the sun or playing in the surf. To many Australians this is considered the norm, a right even – however it was not always so.

Bondi Beach ca. 1900

The 19th Century | A Social Gathering 

Going to the beach to go swimming as a mass leisure activity was pretty much unheard of before the early twentieth century. In the early 1800s convicts were banned from bathing in Sydney’s harbours and beaches due to the dangers of sharks, stingrays and “for reasons of decorum.” Although some people did take on the surf and Victorian morality during the nineteenth century, from 1838 sea bathing was officially banned between the hours of 9.00am and 8.00pm due to decency and morality laws.

Australian beach culture during the nineteenth century usually tended to follow the British model, one would go to the seaside to escape the city, to take in the air and to stroll along the promenade, parading themselves and taking part in a very unique social spectacle. By the mid-1800s Bondi beach was a favourite location for family outings and picnics, and the first tramway reached Bondi beach in 1884 making it even easier to access by all of Sydney’s residents, rich and poor.

In fact, during the nineteenth century it was not swimming that attracted people to the beach, nor was it necessarily the sea side air or picnic opportunities, it was the attractions that were located on man-made ‘pleasure piers’ that projected out from the beach and into the surf that brought visitors. These piers were inherited from English examples such as Brighton pier, and often contained attractions such as amusements, shops, restaurants, and even concert halls and theatres!

Coogee Pier 1920s
Coogee Pier 1920s

These piers continued to be used into the early twentieth century, and iconic Sydney beaches such as Coogee had this structure until it was destroyed by heavy surf in the early 1930s.

Early 20th century | Public Bathing & Swimwear Debates

Although the beach was a popular place for social gatherings by the end of the nineteenth century, public bathing in daylight hours was still strictly forbidden. However during the turn of the century many started to rally against these laws. In 1902 William Gocher advised in protest that he would swim at Manly beach during daylight hours. Surprisingly he did and was not arrested. Similar protests started to take place at beaches all around Australia, although some arrests were made many police were reluctant to arrest those bathers who were decently clothed. By the following year, 1903, laws were relaxed and Australians were finally allowed to enter the water at the beach during daylight hours.

One of the reasons why bathing in the surf during daylight hours was so shocking probably came down to the fact that until the early twentieth century swimwear did not exist, at least not in the way that we moderns envision it. Although types of women’s ‘bathing suits’ had been around since the late seventeenth century. These ‘swimmers’ were often bulky and heavy, covering up just as much if not more flesh than a normal gown would – hardly ideal for swimming surf at the beach.  So if one wanted to properly bathe they were forced to strip down to nothing or to their undergarments – both were bound to upset the strict rules of Victorian morality.

Annette kellerman One Piece swimsuit
Annette kellerman’s One Piece swimsuit early 1900s

Even after the restrictions on daylight bathing were lessened, many women’s swimming costumes were still ruled as indecent, even though they covered from neck to knee. Australian swimmer and diver Annette Kellerman was championed the one piece swimsuit (instead of the usually accepted pantaloons), and it saw her arrested for public indecency at a Boston beach in the USA. Although the 1910s the style, now dubbed the ‘Annette Kellerman’ was starting to become accepted.

Women were not the only ones to come under scrutiny for their bathing attire. Men on Australian beaches were also criticised and sometimes arrested for their choice of swimwear. The predecessor of the modern day speedo, ‘Vs’ as they were called at the time, were popular amongst men from the beginning of the 20th century until the end of the 1930’s. These cotton V-shaped costumes for men covered the lower part of the body and were usually worn as either a single costume or over a one piece costume for added modesty; the latter was made a by-law in some Sydney councils in 1906. ‘Vs’ were particularly popular in swimming baths such as Manly Cove in Sydney and often provoked outrage from moralists over the exhibitionist tendencies of those men who wore them without a traditional one piece (which covered from neck to knee) underneath. One such opponent was the Mayor of Waverly who in 1907 wrote that ‘Vs’ seemed only to accentuate rather than conceal the male anatomy as “after contact with the water… show up the figure… in a very much worse manner than if they were nude.” Another commentator, this time a mother, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in February 1907 that she was forced to leave Balmoral beach with her daughters due to the “sprawling men and lads, naked, but for a nondescript rag around their middle.”

Similar debates raged throughout the 1920s and 1930s, however as the years progressed more and more flesh was starting to be revealed. The first bikini emerged just after WWII, although it covered most of the stomach, revealing only a small section of skin under the breasts. Men also started wearing trunks. This correlated with the idea in the 1940s of a ‘healthy tan’ which encouraged sunbathing and revealing more flesh.

The 1960s and Beyond | Bikinis, Surfing and Lifesaving

If moralists thought the bikini of the 1940s and 50s was shocking than the 1960s must have seen them faint in despair. As skirts got smaller, so to did swimwear and women’s bikinis now exposed all of the stomach and a lot of the breasts. However by this decade it became harder and harder for those who opposed the bikini to prevent its rise, as it began to be featured heavily in film and television, which encouraged everyday women to also wear them.

Australian beach 1970s Stamp

During the 1950s and 60s surfing also became popular in Australia, it was first introduced to Australia at Freshwater beach in Sydney in 1915 by Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku. Australia’s most famous surf spot soon became Bell’s Beach in Victoria and the first annual surfing competition (now also the world’s longest running) ‘The Bells Beach Surf Classic’ was held there in 1961. By the 1970s surfing was a staple of Australian beach culture, as was the bikini. This beach culture soon came to shape Australian culture, especially the culture of those communities who lived near the beach, influencing the upbringing of many as seen in Australian young adult fiction through the works of Puberty Blues and Lockie Leonard.

The most iconic image of Australia beaches today however would have to be the surf lifesavers. Since their formation at Bondi Beach in 1906, with their iconic yellow and red caps, Surf Lifesaving Australia has rescued more than 500,000 people in the 80 years that records have been kept. For anyone who has grown up near the beach their childhood probably involved weekend nippers run by surf lifesaving. Surf lifesaving has also led to competitions such as ‘Ironman’ events and even popular television shows such as ‘Bondi Rescue’. This organisation has truly come to shape Australian beach culture – after all an Australian beach wouldn’t be an Australian beach without the red and yellow flags.

Australian beaches have come a long way since the nineteenth century, however they still continue to bring joy to the millions who visit their yellow sand every year. So get out there and enjoy the rest of summer!

Surf Lifesaving Australia
Surf Lifesaving Australia’s iconic Red and Yellow Flags

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