As New Zealanders developed a liking for sea swimming, distinctive clothes evolved. When swimming first became accepted, at the turn of the 20th century, women wore heavy, voluminous costumes that covered them from neck to knee. Men wore tops and long johns covering them from calf to elbow. Neither costume allowed easy movement.
Men were first to gain greater comfort. By 1910 they were wearing woollen suits, which left the legs free from mid-thigh and had only narrow straps over the shoulders. Some local by-laws also required men to wear V-shaped trunks over their costumes. Soon after this, women began wearing Canadian two-piece outfits – woollen pants and a short-sleeved tunic. They were all in navy blue, and the wool made them heavy to swim in and slow to dry.
By the late 1920s, women were offered one-piece suits, often still with a skirt attached. Bright colours appeared – the Coney Island suit came in red, salmon, jade and royal blue. As sunbathing came into fashion, swimsuits became sleeveless and V-necked, and were cut to expose the back. Elastic materials were used, and togs (swimming gear) became form-fitting. By the late 1930s men could bare their chests.
After the Second World War, synthetic, quick-drying materials appeared, and the bikini was invented. However, it was not until the 1960s that this garment was common in New Zealand.
The beach became a place to show off a beautiful body. From the 1930s, beauty contests became a common part of Boxing Day or New Year’s Day beach carnivals. Sunbathers spent time tanning their skin to a perfect brown. The beach was associated with images of romance and sex. The moonlit walk along the beach and the retreat to the sand hills were teenage rituals.
New Year high jinks
In New Zealand, the beach is a favourite spot to see in the New Year. Bonfires are lit, the beer flows freely and social taboos come under threat. Some beach resorts, such as Mt Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty, Whangamatā in the Coromandel, and Tahunanui near Nelson, are notorious.
The most common, and perhaps the least respected, beach danger is sunburn, which has caused pain to many New Zealanders in the short term and led to skin cancer in thousands. Only in the last years of the 20th century did people heed the warnings to cover up, wear a hat and use protective lotions.
Many beachgoers are afraid of being bitten by katipō spiders and sharks. However katipō have rarely caused fatalities, and shark attacks have been responsible for only nine deaths, the last in 1968. Being bitten by a crab or stung by a bluebottle jellyfish is more common.
The greatest danger is drowning. Between 1995 and 2000, 70 New Zealanders drowned while swimming. Another 19 people lost their lives snorkelling or scuba-diving, and five more while gathering shellfish.
The first life-saving club was established at New Brighton in 1910. By 2002, there were 79 clubs. In 2001, surf lifesavers rescued almost 2,000 people from New Zealand’s seas. The surf clubs are a characteristic feature of the New Zealand beach, with their red and yellow flags marking safe areas to swim.
Children with buckets and spades dig trenches and build sandcastles, while others play cricket and volleyball, and beachcombers collect driftwood. Wooden surfboards, blow-up lilos and water-wings have given way to polystyrene surfboards, boogie boards and surf riders.