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Sun, Sand, Water -- The Ecstasy Of The Beach

By Conrad Goeringer
July, 1998

With a record-breaking heat wave punishing the nation as we venture into the heart of the summer, people are engaged in an annual migration which has characterized Homo Americanus for decades.

They are heading for the beach.

They are joined, of course, by distant cousins across the globe, from pale Europeans heading to the mercifully warmer hospitality of the Mediterranean, to the denizens of countries like Greece, Italy and France which (luckily for them) border those pellucid waters. Even summer doesn’t discourage us from journeying to the Caribbean, even if only in the protective cocoon of an enormous cruise ship. Hawaii seems to beckon year round, as does Australia and the region aptly named Oceania. We hear the call perhaps of an ancestral, ancient sea, or the rush of amniotic fluids lingering as residual memories of our earliest pre-consciousness.

When legal gambling was introduced to Atlantic City, N.J., it was noted that 60 million people lived within a five to six hour jaunt by automobile -- an astounding figure. What was forgotten was that these same people and their earlier relatives had also been trekking “down the shore” since the early 1900s, abandoning the congestion of their urban inhabitation in search of a less hectic and more commodious time on pristine beaches, if only for a weekend. The reconstruction of New York by Robert Moses -- heroic Titan or villain, you choose -- had included Jones Beach, an project which gave the working classes of the Big Apple a decent experience comparable in some ways to that enjoyed by the swells and upper crust who ventured to the Hamptons, or points further north. Bostonians could launch their own excursions in proper form to Cape Cod.
On the other side of the country, the Pacific ocean was both a geographical and metaphorical boundary for the western edge of a new land. The beach there was, as V.S. Naipual wrote in one excavation of the American psyche, literally as far as you could go without falling into the sea. California, “a state of mind,” is one of the most topographically diverse areas of the continent, and the sea coast there has provided us generations of stories and images. Perhaps it is the quintessential beach, from the surfer culture imported from Hawaii, to those sexually charged and, in retrospect, goofy and naive “beach blanket” movies with Frankie Avalon and Anette Funicello.

The annual migration to the beach has congested railroads and ferries, and later the asphalt ribbons leading out of sweltering metropolitan centers toward their coastal destinations. To the beach! We grab swimsuits (the choice is agonizing for many...), bottles of suntan lotion, luggage, coolers, a collection of portable chairs, even a radio and -- for those who can’t seem to disconnect -- cell phones, laptops and pagers. We sit in traffic, bumper-to-bumper over holidays and weekends until we sense the cool breezes from those barrier islands and thin strips of sand which demarcate the terrestrial and aquatic elements. We may have exchanged the sardine-can density of the bedroom community or the workplace for an equally packed sliver of coastal real estate... but we’re finally here, seaside, at the beach!

It has not always been this way, however. Humanity’s relationship with the beach has been a story about our view of the natural world, the supernatural, religious prohibitions and even the sensibilities concerning our own bodies. This story is told from many sources, including a new work, THE BEACH, A HISTORY OF PARADISE ON EARTH (N.Y., Viking, 1998) by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker.

If there is a “beach culture,” it surely begins with the Greeks and Romans, the latter excelling in the construction and use of seaside villas, true “sybaritic retreats.” Philosophers engaged in discourse over the relaxing and beneficial properties of immersing the self in this environment. Nude swimming was widely practiced, either in mixed or segregated groups. Nearly two millennia later, Americans manifested social constipation over the arrival from Europe of two-piece bathing attire, especially the bikini. There was no such shyness, however, for the ancients, as an excavation by Italian archaeologist Gino Gentili demonstrates. While uncovering a fourth-century Roman villa, he discovered a mosaic depicting nubile female gymnasts playing, wearing only the briefest of two-piece garments and displaying ample amounts of toned flesh.

It was a distinctly different notion, though, from Judeo-Christian sensibilities concern water and the shoreline, and the baring of one’s body for purposes of enjoyment. “From the Christian point of view, the aquatic extravagances of the ancient world were a vanity among vanities,” Lencek and Bosker inform us. And even into the Medieval period, the selective use of Biblical text depicted the oceans and its adjoining environs, as a locus for terrible creatures, grotesque and evil where “the powers of hell rage unrestrained.” It remains powerful imagery, throughout both the Old and New Testaments texts. Jesus is said to have calmed the diabolical storms, but even so, the Medieval imagination “gravitated to those depictions of the ocean and its shores that were most terrifying and forbidding.” In Genesis, the ocean is a vast abyss, flowing chaos, and home to an element which was the Great Deluge. In the final book, Revelation, horrific monsters rise up from the depths to torment humanity in preparation for the Tribulation and Final Judgment.

None of these visions fully repressed the craving for the luxuriating amenities of bathing and the beach. Baths, a pleasant remnant from the ancient times, were popular in the Middle Ages where they became a suitable substitute for the ecstatic beach experience. They were places of enjoyment, frivolity, lust and assignation -- often indulged by the clergy. Polite society either turned a blind eye, or denounced the baths, hot springs and other aquatic retreats where people shed their cares and clothing.

It was the Enlightenment and age of exploration, though, that brought the staid Europeans in touch with whole new cultures, and more liberated attitudes pertaining to the beach. Travels by Magellan and Cook, along with de Bouganville’s florid, explicit accounts of Tahiti painted vistas of carefree peoples indulging themselves in an exotic environment, a vision of paradise which dovetailed with the “noble savage” vision of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Later, as Christian missionaries followed the explorers and traders, they endeavored to alter the practices of the indigenous inhabitants. In Hawaii, for instance, the religious proselytized against the evils of surfing and romping in the waters with few if any concealing garments. That was an extension of the earliest perceptions of native existence encountered by the straitlaced Dutch in the mid seventeenth-century. These Polynesian cultures consisted of “a good and friendly people, but excessively lascivious and wanton.” Still, encounters like this would test and often erode the repressed morays of the Europeans, who increasingly came to identify the beach, and specifically the exotic tropical destinations, with a carefree freedom and lust for life which contrasted so much with their own. Missionaries would continue to frown on the naked frivolity of these distant beach settlements, but the imagery was so compelling. The philosophical Enlightenment which questioned the autocratic whims of despotic kings and the stifling clerical rules of the church seems to have unleashed a new genre of sensibilities about the human body, sexuality and enjoyment of the here and now. The Biblical view of the waters was eroding; and artists like Jan van Goyen and Salomon van Ruysdael unleashed a new style of seascape rendering.

All of this fueled another European obsession, at least for those who could afford it. The Grand Tour, a near obligatory process of education for young nobility or members of a rising class of merchants, entrepreneurs and bourgeoisie included immersion not only in the classics, but visits to the shores, bays, gulfs and oceans of the world. Lencek and Bosker remind us that this extended period of world travel was “revolutionary” in its impact.

In America, the beach was originally perceived as wild frontier to be tamed along with immense forests and swamps. The seacoast was for trading, whaling and fishing, practical activities which were to contribute to a growing surplus wealth that would, by the middle of the nineteenth century, free an increasingly urban-bound American populace with the leisure time and money to begin sensing the beach in a new way. But there were religious prohibitions. Clergy condemned any frolics by the sea, although many gave cautious and guarded approval, suggesting that this new leisure activity of going to the beach need not always result in vice and debauchery. Men and women were often segregated; in some resorts such as Cape May, the day was bifurcated with separate times during which men and women might venture onto the sands and into the waters. And everyone was heavily clothed. Men wore one-piece affairs which covered the chest, but beachwear of that era for women was far more cumbersome and confining. Hats, a version of bloomers, stockings... this “beach” outfit essentially replicated the layered, protective fashion women were obliged to carry in public or even the confines of private households.

When and where the sexes were finally permitted to intermingle at the beach, it was usually only within the occulting camouflage of the surf itself. For women, the transition from land to sea was a cumbersome and mechanized affair. It required changing out of the more formal traveling garb (mandatory even in the hottest and most inhospitable weather) into robes and other garments, and finally into what passed as morally acceptable bathing gear. Women were often transported to the water’s edge in fully enclosed carts, where they cautiously emerged only to step quickly into the ocean. The view afforded the male sex was deliberately minimal.

Even pious Christians, though, had caught the beach bug. Up and down the east coast, religious communities and retreats were established. On Martha’s Vineyard, there was Wesleyan Grove which became a center for camp meetings, revivals and other worship. At first, it was only the experience of being by rather than in the water which seemed to matter. Tens of thousands flocked to such locales, though, and soon began spending more time sailing, fishing and eventually swimming than being moved by the spirit of the Lord, or singing the praises of the great hereafter. “By the mid-1860’s, the retreats at Wesleyan Grove had taken on a recreational tone.” A Methodist newspaper praised the tenor of religious conduct, “the singing superb, the preaching superior, the congregations immense,” but noted that while the numbers of seaside revivalists had exploded, conversions had declined to one.

From the dawn of the twentieth century, the mores and changes of the beach reflected the stresses, dislocations and fads of a wider and increasingly secular culture. Conduct at seaside resorts began to shift; stately band music would be replaced by the sensuous tones of the jazz revolution. Industrialization and the growth of unions, and the steady expansion of a middle class, soon meant that more and more people could afford that excursion to the beach. Barrier islands were no longer just small fishing villages or outposts for the U.S. Lifeguard Service, which patrolled the nation’s coastlines in search of distressed ships. There was money to be made, and entrepreneurs rushed to fill the need building lush hotels, boardwalks, stores and amusement parks. Even in the late 1800s, huge hotels dotted the eastern coastline, giant wood extravaganzas adjoining open pavilions, bandstands and, of course, the beach itself.

Changing attitudes about religion reflected themselves in new styles of behavior and fashion, and the beach was no exception. By the 1920s, a chic unisex look was emerging, perhaps testament to the women’s franchise victory; it revealed slightly more skin on both sexes and certainly more curvature. But the old ways did not go quietly and silently into the cultural night. More hydrodynamic swim suits, especially for women, attracted the compulsive interest of bluenoses, police, clerics and other civil authority. “The swimsuit on the beach tells the square-inch-by-square-inch history of how skin went public in modern times,” and of course those changes also mirrored the “continually shifting zones of eroticism.” The ornate bathing dress which for years had covered women from shoulders to knees -- the ankles were bare and still remained a locus of post-Victorian sexual curiosity -- now was challenged by more practical gear. The beach became a “no-tactics-barred arrest zone” for defiant innovators.

Curiously, it remains that even today. The introduction of the bikini led to arrests on many public beaches, and still in the United States, there remains a residue of periodic outbursts of moral zealousness over the “thong,” a mere patch of cloth strategically covering the female pubic region, secured by literally a string of fabric between the buttocks. In principle, the angst and erotic juices stimulated by the bikini remind us of the “Bathing Suit Regulations” unearthed by Lencek and Bosker, issued in 1917 by the American Association of Park Superintendents...

“Blouse and bloomer suits may be worn with or without stockings, provided the blouse has quarter-arm sleeves or close-fitting arm-holes, and provided bloomers are full and not shorter than four inches above the knee. Jersey knit suits may be worn with or without stockings, provided the suit has a skirt or skirt effect, with quarter-arm sleeves or close-fitting arm holes and trunks not shorter than four inches above the knees, and the bottom of the skirt must not be shorter than two inches above the bottom of trunks.”

Men were not soon easily liberated from such foolish strictures themselves. “It took an astonishingly long time for the public to become desensitized to the sight of the bared male chest at the beach.” But the seaside social revolution was put on hold when World War II erupted, and the national psyche was channeled into concerns other than organized pleasure. This brief interlude was followed by another revolution in fabric and materials, as well as mechanical design. Jantzen swimwear led the way, and the company’s marketing campaigns recast the beach as a locus of wholesome family entertainment. Designers began experimenting with novel, more decorative and more revealing swimwear designs. The beach became a secular fashion statement, and those who had opposed the gradual unveiling of both the male and female body found themselves increasingly swimming against the social tide.

No sooner was the bikini introduced in Europe than most leading American fashion gurus began predicting its demise. Diana Vreeland mused that the three strategically-located triangles of cloth “revealed everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden name.” Fashion model Micheline Bernadini was the first to display the new swim suit at a poolside fashion display in Paris on July 5, 2020. It would take years before the bikini was accepted at places like Jones Beach in New York, or even in distant Australia where lifeguards worked closely with the constabulary in enforcing decorum by the sea. But in a postwar, heated economy which flooded the marketplace with new goods and services, chic fashion became a statement of status. Swimsuits were lighter, and hugged the body in a more provocative fashion. Along with this body gear came a bewildering array of mechanical accessories, everything from portable barbecue grills, radios and even trailers to beach boys and, of course, the aluminum folding chair.

Slowly, even more of the human form was being revealed. Marilyn Monroe, aka Norma Jean Baker, modeled a sexy “Double Dare” bathing suit which used strategically placed openings to reveal portions of the upper thigh. Just as cars took on stylish designs and colorful monikers, swim gear assumed provocative labels such as “Temptation.” Breasts were accentuated by re-enforced, fabric “cones,” remarkably similar to the protruding fronts of automobiles. Harley Earl, who presided over the Art and Color Section of General Motors and “virtually invented automobile design” according to critic Thomas Hine, shook up the automotive aesthetic by introducing a generation of accentuated fins and breast-like protuberances on cars -- a “new shape of motion.” Starting with the 1948 Cadillac its apotheosis in the 1953 models, these design projections were labeled “Dagmars” and “bombs” by their stylists. The parallels with descriptions of female anatomy were obvious. Swimsuits replicated these thrusted extensions, fusing eroticism, fashion and a sense of modernity.

The late fifties and early sixties saw the development of another chapter in beach culture, that of the Teen Rebellion. By now the two piece suit was “in,” and American girls barely out of puberty were revealing more of themselves thanks to the growing popularity of the bikini. There was no holding back the wave. A proliferation of “beach movies” hit the big screen showcasing a new generation of teen idols and music. Song titles betrayed the unique codes and rituals of a burgeoning generation of younger people... “Annie Had a Baby,” “It Ain’t the Meat It’s the Motion,” and “Rockin’ & Rollin, Ballin’ & Squallin’.” The drive in theater was transformed into an automotive passion pit for a new sexually charged generation which abandoned and even defied the stricter parental norms of their elders. More sophisticated yet equally suggestive was the famous beach embrace in the film hit “From Here to Eternity,” based on the James Jones bestseller. Burt Lancaster was barechested, and transformed into a protean icon of male sensuality. The beach had come a long, long way from the earlier genre of “acquacade” movies that Hollywood used as a stape for nearly two decades. Meanwhile, surfing exploded out of its earlier confines as a form of recreation, becoming somewhat of a way of life, particularly on the west coast associated with carefree values and hedonistic pursuits.

During so much of our recent history, especially in America, views concerning the beach touched on deep and often volatile sensibilities. The beach has been a place of fear, a locus of enjoyment and pleasure. It has prompted us to act out phobias and fantasies about our material selves, and it has been one of the preeminent statements of how the wider culture perceived the female body as something initially to be covered, corseted, protected and concealed and, gradually, to be flaunted and adored. The beach has long impinged on our social nervous system. We are drawn to it as a reminder of a carefree childhood when time stands still, and we luxuriate in the here and now of the salt air, the windswept moment, free of so many of the constraints of civilization. It is no wonder that religious attitudes shaped humanity’s earliest perception of this geographic zone, the intersection of elemental forces ... wind, earth, water and even fire in the form of the sun. And it is no mystery that those biases later came into conflict as more enlightened attitudes and changing social mores began to assert themselves.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.