By David Wencer, originally published November 23, 2011
The City’s debate over bathing suits in the 1930s
In July of 1930, Toronto passed a new by-law concerning clothing on public beaches. The previous by-law, from 1904, stated that “any person wearing a proper bathing dress, covering the body from the neck to the knees may bathe at any time in the public waters within the city limits.” In contrast, the 1930 by-law was vaguer in its description, re-defining proper bathing attire as “sufficient to prevent indecent exposure of his person.” The ambiguity of the new by-law resulted in some minor conflict over the next decade, as Torontonians debated what level of exposure qualified as “indecent.”
In the early twentieth century, bathing suits in the western world were getting smaller, with manufacturers and consumers favouring designs which were more comfortable, and which allowed for greater freedom of movement. An article in the Toronto Star in 1934 noted that the lighter, smaller swimming costumes contributed to the growing popularity of swimming in North America: “the bathing costume of the female used to weigh, when water-soaked, from 10 to 15 pounds… So long as this state of affairs persisted there was no swimming. But today, when a women’s [bathing] suit may be a costume of tie silk, weighing as little as an ounce, swimming is not only possible – the full voltage of the cosmic urge is behind it.”
The rise in swimming’s popularity can also be attributed to a growing belief that both swimming and sunbathing were beneficial to one’s health. In 1936, Dr. W.J. McCormick, who operated the High Park Mineral baths, said he much preferred the smaller bathing suits to the days “when women wore even stockings, bloomers, skirts and shoes and men had bathing suits down below their knees.” These large bathing suits had been heavy and cumbersome and could prove hazardous, as they actually made the process of swimming more difficult by weighing down the swimmer and making it harder for them to move their arms and legs. In addition to allowing greater movement, changes to bathing suits in the 1920s and ’30s were frequently ones which allowed for increased skin exposure. A lifestyle piece in the 1934 Star noted that the most popular style of bathing suit for women was then “the low-backed wool suit which is ample covering in front, but which becomes shorter and shorter each year at the hip line and exposes a wider expanse of back to the health-giving sunshine.”
Much of the initial interest in Toronto in the decency of bathing suits seems to have focussed on women’s bathing suits, as the earlier, billowing styles gave way to more form-hugging designs. In 1932, however, concern emerged over the bathing attire of men, specifically whether or not it was indecent for a man to go swimming without a top, as was then becoming popular. Inspector Thomas Sockett of the Toronto police’s Morality Department told the Star in March of 1932 that Toronto would not tolerate men bathing topless, despite the emerging trend towards men going trunks-only on beaches in others municipalities. As far as Sockett was concerned, “indecency” meant anything which appeared to offend public opinion, and he believed the city received enough complaints over topless male swimmers to declare public opinion offended. Sockett noted that, “even when men wore only trunks for boat-racing there was so much opposition it had to be discontinued.”
In 1934, the Toronto Harbour Commission passed its own special by-law specifically requiring men to wear tops when swimming on public Toronto beaches, giving lifeguards the authority to judge the immorality or indecency of bathing suits, and to enforce the harbour by-law themselves. When asked about his new responsibility, Hilliard Lang, superintendent of the Toronto life-saving department, told the Starthat he was less-concerned about women’s bathing suits, saying “it’s those filthy men who go around with just trunks on, leaving the whole of their ugly, hairy bodies exposed to women and children.” The same Star article suggested that at this time, an estimated 35% of male swimmers on Toronto beaches were only wearing trunks, noting that up until this time the city by-law regulating swimwear was not actively enforced.
That poor rate of enforcement seems to have changed. In August of 1935, the Star reported that 202 summonses had been issued that year for swimming in trunks only, resulting in 53 people being fined a total of $80, with others being remanded for sentence. That summer, various Toronto rowing clubs reported that they attempted to make their members wear tops, but that the laws were proving difficult to actively enforce.
By 1936, enforcing a trunks-only interpretation of the city’s by-law was becoming increasingly difficult. In many other nearby municipalities, swimming in trunks only was widely accepted, generally resulting in little public outrage. And, the trend was growing in Toronto. Toronto’s Harbour Commission repealed its 1934 by-law expressly forbidding trunks-only swimming, and Toronto beaches were once again subject to the vague requirement that bathing suits be “sufficient to prevent indecent exposure.” In a 2010 Torontoist article on the bathing suit debate, historian Kevin Plummer notes that as the 1936 swimming season dawned, local bathing suit manufacturers contacted the police commission seeking an interpretation of the new harbour by-law; these companies were making and marketing trunks-only suits, and wanted to determine whether these suits would be legal on Toronto beaches.
During the spring of 1936, Toronto officials debated what constituted an “indecent” bathing suit. Mayor Sam McBride weighed in, saying “Just what is a pair of trunks? In my opinion trunks are only half a bathing suit.” Inspector Sockett also spoke up again, telling the Star that “some men seem to want to strut around the local beaches in nothing but trunks. Looking like ape-men. If they were in a sideshow, charging 10 cents a piece to look at them, it might be all right, but not on Toronto beaches.”
The general consensus revealed no substantial concern over the increasing skimpiness of the tops or bottoms for either gender except in extreme cases, provided both tops and bottoms existed. The Star wrote “a suit will have to be positively startling in its revealingness before its wearer must suffer the ignominy of being singled out for police action.” The police announced that they would, nevertheless, be considering any male swimmer without a top to be in violation of the by-law.
On the weekend of June 27-28, 1936, Toronto police went to the Toronto beaches, seeking violators of the bathing-suit law, resulting in thirty summonses. On July 3, twenty-four of these men appeared in Police Court, none of whom had arranged for counsel, all evidently planning on pleading guilty.
After John McConvey, the first accused man to appear, admitted to not wearing a top at Centre Island beach, things took a surprising turn. Ken Blair, described in the Globe as a “young law student,” emerged from the crowd in the courtroom and apparently declared himself counsel for the defense. Blair’s single tactic was to ask McConvey if he had actually been in the water. McConvey denied doing any actual swimming, and as the arresting officer had no direct evidence that McConvey had actually been in the water without a top on, there was no indication that he had broken any law. The reason? The 1930 by-law regarding bathing suits only pertained to people “in the water,” and said nothing about those on the beaches or on the shore. The police officers were forced to testify that the men they arrested were not even wet when apprehended.
This ruling meant that men could legally sunbathe topless on public Toronto beaches, but would be required to put on a top in order to enter the water, even if only to dip their toe in. Magistrate Tinker, who made this ruling, hinted at the absurdity of this situation, saying “what I don’t understand is why it should be any worse to bathe in the water in trunks, than to sit on the shore in trunks. Personally, I would say it was much better that such persons were in the water, unseen.”
Toronto Council was in recess at the time, meaning that this interpretation was required to stand until at least September, when Council was due to reconvene. There is no indication that this by-law was amended that autumn, and when summer came in 1937, Inspector Sockett indicated that more severe cases of indecency would be pursued, but “as far as tops to bathing suits are concerned, we can act only if council wants to amend the by-law.” Later that summer Gordon Sinclair wrote a column for the Star indicating that inspectors would not be looking for topless men, and that Sockett himself was now purportedly a convert to topless swimming.
Ambiguity about proper bathing attire prompted a handful of further complaints, but by the 1940s the debate all but disappears from the newspapers. By this time most bathing suits sold for men in Toronto were trunks only. One of the later comments on the major shift in male bathing suit design can gleaned from a walk-out of Toronto’s lifeguards during the summer of 1941. While the chief matter of the strike was pay, Peter Burger, a 19 year-old city lifeguard, told the Star that the city’s lifeguards needed lighter suits. “We are wearing the same type of bathing suit designed for this duty 25 years ago. I nearly drowned once last year, just because of this heavy type of suit.”