Nudity and sexuality
In mid-20th-century New Zealand, when nudist clubs were first set up, most people associated nudity with sexuality. People generally dressed modestly. Even married couples seldom revealed their bodies in front of each other when dressing or washing. In 1954, when Laurel Olsen’s husband Les told her that he had visited a nudist club, her first response was, ‘You’re a dirty old man’. She explained, ‘I’d never heard of them, you see, and I was shocked. I thought – our marriage isn’t going to last!’1
Many people, especially women, responded in a similar fashion. They could not understand why people wanted to take off their clothes in public. It took Les five years, and the help of some friends, to convince Laurel to visit the club. In the 2010s the couple had been naturists for more than 50 years.
Attitudes of immigrants
In contrast to most New Zealanders, European immigrants were often more relaxed about nakedness. Many early nudists had lived in or came from other places. As naturism was an international movement, members read magazines from abroad and visited camps in other countries.
Following the rules
Ad and Reet Zwetsloot joined the Wellington Sun Club soon after arriving from Holland in 1950. Reet was relaxed about nudity and amused by some of the prudish attitudes she found in New Zealand. She wore a bikini to the Upper Hutt swimming pool. The attendant told her she had to wear a one-piece bathing suit, so she asked him which piece he wanted her to take off. He was so embarrassed he did not ask her again.
Initially the nudists met with wide rejection. Newspapers would not accept their advertisements, and letters to the editor suggested that nudists were ‘uncivilised’, comparing them to some indigenous peoples who went without clothes. Nudists also came in for a great deal of personal ridicule. The novel combination of moral earnestness and nakedness provided scope for numerous cartoons and jokes. These began in 1933 when journalists mocked the idea of sunbathing naked in the chilly Dunedin breezes.
Strict rules governed membership in most clubs in the 1950s and 1960s – single men in particular were greeted with great suspicion. Married men had to obtain their wife’s signature if she herself refused to join. No alcohol was allowed and there were several occasions when men were ejected from clubs because their behaviour was deemed unacceptable. Club members wanted to change attitudes in New Zealand society. They believed that society was wrong to associate nakedness with sex, and that going without clothes led to less emphasis on sex.
In the mid-1950s the president of the New Zealand Sunbathing Association, Percy W. Cousins, sent out hundreds of letters to newspaper editors, civil servants and politicians. He sought to persuade them of the sincerity and decency of the naturist movement. Those involved began to use the term naturism instead of nudism, and the press were invited to the third national rally in 1955. The campaign paid off and led to greater public acceptance of the movement. This gained momentum as society became more liberal in the 1960s and 1970s.
Once the lifestyle became more popular, naturists, not all of whom were associated with clubs, began to venture into some public places, particularly beaches. It became generally known that at some beaches, or parts of beaches, clothes were optional. A society, Free Beaches NZ, was established in 1975 to promote this. Changes in interpretation of the law from the 1980s made it ‘not illegal’ to be naked in certain public places, providing there was no accompanying lewd behaviour. However, there was intermittent controversy when members of the public complained of being offended by beach naturists.