What does being arrested feel like? Luckily, most people will never be able to speak from their own experience. However, in 1945 a woman had to learn it the hard way. Wearing a bikini at the popular Bondi Beach in Sydney she was arrested for it and charged with offensive behavior.
Everyone knows the famous Australian Bondi Beach where approximately 80,000 people flock to every weekend. With women sunbathing, swimming or surfing bikinis from all sorts can be seen. In the first instance this may sound ridiculous, but about 70 years ago this was a behavior in public that is against the law.
In 1935 the Local Government Act, Ordinance No. 52 set exact dimensions for swimming costumes worn at the beach. For example, men’s and women's costumes must have legs at least 3" long, must completely cover the front of the body from a line at the level of the armpits to the waist, have shoulder straps or other means of keeping the costume in position.
The first arrests
According to a Sunday report in the Australian daily newspaper Telegraph in 1945 the woman's arrest at the Bondi Beach 'caused a near riot'. In 1951 Yvonne Freedman was arrested for wearing a bikini as was Hollywood film starlet Jean Parker. The mob was around them right after the Beach Inspectors ordered them off, eventually they had to get escorted out of the back of the pavilion.
Having the responsibility to enforce the Local Government Act on the beach Waverley Council Lifeguards, who were then known as Beach Inspectors, thought it was demeaning to them as they were emergency service workers, not the fashion police.
The Bikini War in the 1960s
Over the weekend in 1961 more than 70 women were ordered from Bondi Beach because their swimsuits did not conform to regulations. With these arrests getting extensive coverage by the media, the new term 'the bikini war' came up. Unsurprisingly, the media often staged the news stories themselves by ‘planting’ bikini clad models on the beach and then reporting the subsequent response by the Lifeguards.
A case report in the Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 1961, mentions the costume being confiscated by the police and that ‘the exhibit’ i.e. the bikini, was available for viewing at the Police Station.
However, in 1961 the council proposed a solution to the problem. Bikini-clad women would parade in front of them, and they decide if their outfits were suitable or not. Not surprisingly this was unsuccessful and by the end of the year the 1935 ordinance was abandoned and a new one introduced, requiring that bathers be “clad in a proper and adequate bathing costume” without actually making any specifications on style or type, simply that it must be decent without defining exactly what this was.
The bikini ‘war’ had been won – by the bikini wearers!
Published by Isabelle Stock from Local History source material, 2009.