7 min

The wiles of the sea vamp

Saving Toronto from bare-chested men & shameless women

COVER UP. Not too long ago, this was required swimwear. Credit: Xtra files

Even the Pope approves of nude bathing.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II (then Cardinal Wojtyla) wrote: “Sexual modesty cannot then in any simple way be identified with the use of clothing, nor shamelessness with the absence of clothing…. Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person…. The human body is not in itself shameful…. Shamelessness is a function of the interior of a person.”

His Holiness apparently would consider it quite plausible that a naked person is “properly attired” for swimming or sunbathing.

But, as odd as it sounds, the Pope has been far ahead of Toronto when it comes to nudity. It’s only with this year’s decision by city council to restore Hanlan’s Point beach to clothing-optional status that we’ve caught up to the Vatican.

The history of attempts to control beach attire is delightfully twisted. The 1930 repeal of Toronto’s three official clothing-optional beaches (Hanlan’s Point, near the CNE grounds and near Ashbridge’s Bay) was part of a larger effort to save Toronto The Good from perdition and ignominy.

But even before that, except in designated clothing-optional zones, Toronto swimmers of both genders had to wear “a proper bathing dress covering the body from the neck to the knees” starting in 1890. Such rules were common in North America in the late 19th century, but most US cities had ceased to require that bathing suits cover from the neck to the knees by 1917.

Toronto’s public morals by-law was scrapped as “obsolete” in 1927, except the neck-to-the-knees proviso. In 1930, council finally modified this anachronism. Their reluctance to act sooner demonstrated the prudishness operating when the clothing-optional beaches were rescinded. A vocal, puritanical minority may have been louder than popular opinion.

Toronto’s new standard demanded “a proper bathing suit sufficient to prevent indecent exposure of his person.”

Mayor Warring Kennedy grumped, “There are some men wearing only a six-inch tight in public places. This is to prevent that.” No Toronto paper ran the headline, “Mayor complains 6 inches is not enough!”

Toronto Council finally repealed the 1930 bathing by-law in 1969. The uniform parks by-law now makes it an infraction to “utilize facilities without being properly attired including appropriate swimwear or beach clothing.” This harkens back to a censor judging whether beach-goers are “properly attired.” The history of swimwear regulation shows that propriety is extraordinarily subjective.

Puritanical and bizarre restrictions have sometimes annoyed male beach-goers. However, sexism in the control of beach costumes historically generated a truly dangerous undertow for women, bordering on misogyny. Viewed in this context, access to a clothing-optional beach represents another step toward gender equality for women.

In 1881, the Montreal Swimming Club refused to admit women, “since in the interest of propriety this innovation would require a special bathing place.” Ladies were expected to wear concealing and cumbersome costumes that made actual swimming all but impossible. Modesty was a woman’s duty, not a man’s. Nudity was a prerogative of masculinity: if a naked male was hanging around, the onus was on the female to avert her gaze.

Around 1910, serious female swimmers startled observers by wearing form-fitting swimsuits appropriate for athletic swimming. A traditionally-attired woman had to battle “the anchor-like effect of her voluminous bathing outfit” – a “distracting and often dangerous impediment to swimming.” Respectable female swimmers were even expected to wear shoes and heavy woolen stockings.

Such rules were common in North America in the late 19th century. However, by 1917, US cities generally were allowing women to wear bathing suits that bared their clavicles and thighs. But the prudery continued.

In 1922, the St Petersburg (Florida) Purity League demanded that the mayor appoint “a bathing suit inspector.” The league explained that it was seeking “to protect the married men from the wiles of the sea vamp.” This deliciously worked phrase conjures visions of a niece of the cunning mer-slut. (Ironically, a 1932 campaign against nudity at English bathing resorts contended that “the average female figure is definitely unappealing.”)

In 1930, Lachine, Quebec, passed a by-law requiring female bathers in the St Lawrence River to wear swimsuits reaching at least three inches below the knee. Local women and the few remaining tourists made a pact to defy the by-law. Property owners sued the town for scaring away most of their cabin-rental business.

But it wasn’t only women who were forced into compliance with bizarre public regulation of swimwear.

Starting in 1921, people on the streets of Honolulu were required to be “covered suitably by an outer garment reaching at least to the knees.” Many beachgoers complied by wearing coats, but still without wearing swimsuits underneath. Upon arriving at the beach, native Hawaiians continued to do what they had always done – swim and sunbathe nude.

In 1922, Atlantic City decreed that people wearing bathing suits in city streets must don a garment covering to the knees. In protest, several hotel guests paraded to the beach clad in barrels. Strict enforcement of the cover-up rule soon led to a new business: an enterprising young man rented out bathrobes so that people could get past police lines at the beach entrances.

Beach censorship reached an extreme at Palm Beach in 1925. Ordered to bar people wearing white or “flesh-coloured” swimsuits, the local censor prepared a set of colour samples. It is not clear whether they covered the full spectrum of human skin pigmentation or just tones commonly found on affluent caucasians.

Beach censors valiantly protected public morality at Coney Island in 1926: “Twenty-seven violators pleaded either to having too short bathing suits, shirts tucked inside trunks, or walking in the streets in their bathing suits without covering. Each was fined $10, with an alternative of 10 days in jail.”

Torontonians were first subjected to this sort of provision in the same 1930 by-law that repealed the clothing-optional beach designations: “No person clothed in a bathing suit only shall… appear in any… public place, excepting a public water and the beach or shore adjoining same.”

In 1914, a man’s typical two-piece swimsuit included an “absurd shirt dangling anywhere from the waistline to below the knees.”

Guys eventually started rebelling against wearing such a thing. In 1931, a 70-year-old Toronto man was hauled into court for exposing his “manly chest” when he “neglected to pull down the blind while changing his shirt before the window at his home… Members of the United Church office staff, which premises face [his] apartment, took offence and John was arrested, charged with indecent exposure.” The magistrate treated him “leniently” because the accused was a man of “the best character.”

That same summer, “although the heat was stifling,” a Mississauga constable detained and lectured three young men for driving shirtless.

In 1934, Brigadier-General Joseph G Langton, general manager of the Toronto Harbour Commission (THC), ranted: “I am strongly of the opinion that some protection should be given to the boating public against the increased habit of full-grown men rowing, canoeing or bathing with no other clothing than trunks, or bathing suits rolled up to resemble trunks….” Against legal advice, the THC promptly amended its by-laws to thwart this menace. Archived copies of internal THC correspondence show that Langton’s personal views – not public complaints – were the impetus.

Thanks to Langton’s blustering, Toronto finally had its very own official beach censors. The Star savaged the notion of lifeguards judging swimwear, rather than concentrating on safety.

Letters to the editor pointed out that male toplessness was already accepted at beaches in much of the US and Europe. Toronto’s official prudishness was out of step even with the rest of Ontario: “In villages and towns throughout the province, male bathers are permitted to wear shorts.”

Toronto police in 1935 conceded that they received no public complaints about bathing costumes, “but we aren’t waiting for complaints. We are continually checking up.”

The Morality Squad still warned that officers would not stand idly by if “you walk down Yonge St wearing only a bathing suit, no matter if it was down to your knees.”

Stupid laws run the risk of selective enforcement, sometimes for homophobic motivations. George Chauncey’s book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture And The Making Of The Gay Male World 1890-1940, recounts an incident involving the young Harvey Milk. Strolling in Central Park, Milk saw police harassing single men who were bare-chested, but ignoring topless men with women.

By 1936, the THC recognized the battle against male toplessness and female hussies was lost. Swimsuit restrictions were the subject of mounting complaints from irate tourists and Toronto residents. The THC by-law was so widely flouted it was unenforceable.

The THC modelled a new provision on the 1930 Toronto by-law, making the standards for bathing attire even more subjective. Fortunately, a beach censor was willing to protect Torontonians and tourists alike from their own rampant immorality. (The THC by-law stayed on the books until Jun 9 of this year when the THC ceased to exist. The new Toronto Port Authority lacks authority to pass a similar by-law.)

In 1936, the Toronto Police Commission appointed a new censor of bathing suits. A Toronto paper took this occasion to print photos of “modern” bathing suits modelled by members of the Dolphinet Swimming Club. The caption tauntingly asked, “What will Chief Constable Draper think?”

Because he was a censor, he may have considered it obvious as to what constituted a proper bathing suit. Maybe he had doubts. Should he at all costs defend Toronto’s beaches against women wearing backless, dicolleti, one-piece swimsuits? Did he agree that beach censorship is necessary “to protect the married men from the wiles of the sea vamp?”

Should he keenly follow the example of the Coney Island censor who, in 1931, made sure that an orphan girl was jailed for exposing her shoulder on the beach? Would allowing furry nipples at Toronto beaches be the downfall of civilization?

Toronto newspapers of the era were awash with images that would arouse the ire of a beach censor, such as a cartoon illustrating a bare-chested man, “as fine a specimen of manhood as Tarzan had ever seen.”

In 1936, The Star reported: “Mayor McBride today termed as ‘disgusting’ some of the bathing suits worn by men and women, young and old, on Toronto beaches… ‘In my opinion, trunks are only half a bathing suit.'”

Apparently His Worship didn’t go to the movies very often. Frank Capra’s popular 1934 screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, swept five top Oscars. Clark Gable’s revelation that he is wearing nothing underneath his shirt reputedly devastated sales of undershirts in North America. Most Torontonians did not consider his chest “disgusting.”

By 1939, male toplessness was the norm at most beaches in North America. Female toplessness would remain illegal at Toronto beaches until almost six decades later, when the Ontario Court Of Appeal ruled in favour of Gwen Jacob, the Guelph woman who was arrested in 1991 for going topless.

And the last Puritanical excesses of the 1930 by-law were remedied when Toronto City Council voted on May 12, 1999 to restore the official clothing-optional designation at Hanlan’s Point Beach.

Peter Simm is a Toronto lawyer who specializes in appeals.

Whatever your gender, age, race, or body shape, he looks forward to seeing you at the beach. Peter invites you to wear nothing but a smile and SPF 30 sunscreen. This is part of a brief presented to Toronto City Council on Hanlan’s Point history.