Friday, January 22, 2010

The Victorians were less Victorian than we imagine

On Tuesday the indefatigable Millennium Elephant covered the story began his posting on Stephen Gough, the naked rambler, with the words:
So it's 2010 and the VICTORIAN ERA is still well and truly in full complete-lack-of-swing here in ye Olde Grande Britannia.
Up to a fluffy point.

Having once pointed out that the Victorians did not cover piano legs because they thought them immodest, I had better also point out that the Victorians were remarkably relaxed about nudity - nudity among males in particular. Much more relaxed, in fact, than we are today.

Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience by Ronald Hyam records:

Not until 1890 did the Amateur Swimming Association rule that bathing drawers must be worn in competitive schoolboy racing. Cambridge and (even more successfully) Oxford were among the last pockets of resistance to swimming costumes.

Gwen Raverat's rhapsodies about nude swimming in the River Cam reflected a dying practice. It was frowned on by the city fathers after 1894 and finally banned from the town bathing sheds in 1910, although screened and segregated nude sunbathing survived until (ironically) the mid-1960s.

And what would the Victorians have made of the burka?


dreamingspire said...

As late as 1960 the rule in the swimming pool at Manchester Grammar School was no swimming trunks. That was a Direct Grant school.

Simon Titley said...

This reminds me of the story about Oxford academic Maurice Bowra. One day, he was bathing naked with some male friends in the River Cherwell, when a boat containing some women sailed past. While his companions covered their privates, Bowra covered his head. After the boat had passed, his friends asked Bowra why he had done so. Bowra replied, "I don't know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford I, at least, am known by my face."

Anonymous said...

I went to MGS 1965-72 and can confirm that the no swimming trunks rule was still in force then.