Naturism, previously known as nudism, is an organised movement of people who want to enjoy the outdoors and socialise with other like-minded people, without having to wear clothes.
New Zealanders were encouraged to take up nudism by the many books and magazines produced by the European and North American nudist movements from the 1920s. In Germany, in particular, nudism had become a mass movement. Historical precedents, for instance the athletes in classical Greece who had competed without clothes, were another inspiration.
The early nudists believed that nakedness was natural and healthy, and that exposure to the sun had important health benefits. They rejected what they called ‘mock modesty’ and the association of nakedness with sexual arousal.
Sunbathing or swimming naked in public was illegal in the 1930s when the nudist movement began in New Zealand. Though some people indulged covertly in these activities, nudists sought to establish clubs where they could legally be naked in private.
In 1933 Eric Flint made the first public attempt to set up a nudist club in Dunedin. Media coverage incited a barrage of hostility from clergy and women’s groups, as well as suspicion from the police. Flint gave up and departed for Auckland. A club called the Auckland Sun Group, formed in January 1938, went into recess during the Second World War because restrictions on gasoline hindered travel to places out of town. Another club was set up in Dunedin in early 1938. In the early 1940s Bert Brittain bought the property that would become the club grounds for the Auckland Sun Group, a 1.6-hectare piece of bush with a stream running through it in the Waitākere Ranges, near Auckland.
Nudists believed that children particularly benefited from the lifestyle. Sex education was straightforward because of a lack of embarrassment about bodies. Children were unselfconscious and enjoyed the freedom of playing in the campgrounds.
Other clubs were set up. Once groups had purchased a piece of land, club members contributed much time to clearing gorse and blackberry. They flattened out areas for tent sites, sunbathing and ball games. Digging out swimming pools and building clubhouses were major projects. The basic camping facilities in the early years did not prevent the many children and their parents enjoying themselves, both working and relaxing afterwards.
In 1953 the first national rally of the New Zealand Sunbathing Association was held in Whanganui. It was attended by 38 adults and 19 children from eight areas. From the mid-1950s club members began to use the term naturism rather than nudism, in an attempt to make the movement more publicly acceptable. By the 1970s naturism was no longer seen as shocking by most New Zealanders. Numbers of naturists reached a high point during the 1980s.
Naturists have their own sport, miniten, which is a game played on a half-size tennis court with a round double-sided bat, following the same rules as tennis. Miniten was invented in the 1930s, when nudist clubs often did not have enough room for full-sized tennis courts.
In 2012 there were 17 clubs affiliated to the New Zealand Naturist Federation, with a total of around 1,600 members. In addition there were two private naturist holiday parks, a number of naturist homestays and some private nudist camping facilities throughout the country. Clubs and other venues provided places to go and activities in the weekends, as well as a network of holiday locations at which families were welcome.
Many clubs were set in native bush planted by the early nudists. They provided opportunities for nude recreation, including swimming, volleyball and other games. Some of the larger clubs, such as the Auckland Outdoor Naturist Club, had monthly entertainments, spa and sauna facilities and powered campsites. At the other end of the spectrum, Rotota Sun Club, beside Lake Ōhakuri in the central North Island, did not have electricity and visitors needed to bring food supplies and drinking water. There were natural thermal springs around the site.
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.
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.
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.
Daley, Caroline. Leisure & pleasure: reshaping & revealing the New Zealand body 1900–1960. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003.