I recently visited the West Australian Museum in Kalgoorlie, and there is currently an exhibition of local photographs from the early 20th century. One in particular caught my eye, and truly not for the most obvious reason. OK, the picture was of a bunch of naked men, but that was not the reason for my interest, honestly.
This picture triggered lots of questions in my mind. Unfortunately there was no real background information given with most of the pictures in the exhibition, other than a brief description of the subject, and sometimes a date. This particular one just said ‘Naked Bathers at the Kalgoorlie swimming pool’, or something like that, which was obvious to anybody looking at it. There was a bunch of men, about 30 or 40 of them, standing and sitting around just as God (or whoever was responsible) made them. Why? was the first question. Was it usual for them to swim naked? And if so, again, why? Granted, Lycra hadn’t been invented, and the old fashioned swimsuits you see in some photos must have been very uncomfortable and impractical to swim in, in fact some would have held so much water and been so heavy they would have been downright dangerous. But surely some kind of clothing would have been in order? Lightweight underwear for example might not have concealed much once it was wet, but presumably there were no females present on this occasion anyway. Having since done some research I find that Speedos began to be produced in the 1920s, which I think is after this photo, but I’m positive that these men could have found something to swim in if they wanted.
The men’s attitude towards the situation seems to have been variable. Some are standing or sitting proudly at the front of the photo, making no attempt to hide anything. In fact one or two have quite aggressive attitudes, as if to say ‘so what?’ One in particular sits with his legs apart leaning back a little in his seat, and I’m pretty sure I have read somewhere that experts in body language consider that quite a confrontational pose in a man, even when clothed. Even more difficult to pull off naked, and surely indicates either a very confident man, or one who is trying very hard to appear so.
Others are standing at the back of the group, and although they are presumably naked too nothing untoward is visible to the camera. Some sit with their legs crossed coyly, and in some cases even their eyes are averted from the camera, as if they are not really comfortable with the situation. One can only imagine the conversation going on amongst the group. After all, this is not something that can be captured in a fraction of a second, like today’s paparazzi shots, taken before the subject is even aware of the photographer, let alone had an opportunity to object. These men took off their clothes, placed themselves in a group around the side of the pool, and stood there for several minutes whilst the picture was taken. Again ‘why?’
On closer examination I can see one standing individual at the back of the group that looks like a woman. The face is not clear, but surely that is a frilly collar over what looks like a black dress? The figure is certainly older, not a young blushing girl, but who was she, if indeed it is a she? Some kind of attendant perhaps, responsible for towels, or cleaning changing rooms? And were all those men comfortable with her being around? Presumably so, and she doesn’t look embarrassed either. I really want to lean closer to the picture, and try to work out whether it is actually a woman or not, but there are other people in the gallery, and an obscure feeling of decorum prevents me, lest they think I am only looking more closely at the naked men.
Given what we are always told was a prevailing sense of modesty, decency and even prudishness amongst the Victorians and early Edwardians, when we are told that even pianos and tables were covered in long cloths so that ladies might not see their legs, (the furniture legs that is, not the ladies’) this blatant display of nudity is a real puzzle to me.