Cloudy, conservative Britain may not be the easiest place to go naked, but a century ago, the nudist movement arrived. Inspired by more established groups in Germany, British nudism was propelled by local artists, writers, sex reformers, educators, physicians, and psychologists who believed passionately in the sun’s power to transform the human body and mind. For them, public group nudity did more than just produce a nice tan; together with vegetarianism, vigorous exercise, and other lifestyle changes, it could improve national health and remedy Britain’s buttoned-up social norms and rigid class divisions.
The first nudist clubs and camps appeared in southern England, where the weather was more amenable to sun bathing, socializing, exercising, swimming, and even folk dancing in the buff. By 1929, Britain’s small but budding nudist communities inspired the writer John Langdon-Davies to predict optimistically in his book The Future of Nakedness that it would be “a short time only before a person who wears more than a loincloth in Regent Street will be stigmatized as indecent and degenerative.”
The movement has changed dramatically since those early idealistic years. Nudism in a Cold Climate: The Visual Culture of Naturists in Mid-20th-Century Britain by Anabella Pollen (Atelier Éditions) traces this unique subculture’s dynamic evolution through the photographs, books, magazines, and films that variously defined it from the 1920s to the 1970s. This fascinating, engaging book demonstrates how British nudists — who later preferred to call themselves naturists — fought for legitimacy in a country not known for warm weather or liberal attitudes. In the process, their utopian vision was confronted with complex questions about sex, inclusion, and the power of looking.
Nudist magazines began to circulate in Britain shortly after the movement’s founding. Though they were meant to reflect and formalize an authentic sense of nudist culture, from their start the magazines’ visuals presented a selective view of Britain’s naturists: only slim, able-bodied, athletic, young white people appeared. Early naturist magazines published pictures of muscular men in classical, heroic poses. But, always wary of possible homosexual messaging, they soon focused on photos of conventionally attractive young women. Despite the naturists’ emphasis on sun exposure, these were almost always pale professional models, not active nudists, and their poses became more sensual and suggestive as the years passed.
These changes incensed many naturists, who had long tried to divorce their breed of nudity from any sense of sexuality or deviance in an effort to appear wholesome, health-focused, and family-friendly in the eyes of society. However, member numbers always skewed heavily to male, and men were by far the majority consumers of naturist magazines and films, which became increasingly blurred with pornographic materials as the decades passed. In fact, many of the models, photographers, advertisers, and producers of naturist magazines worked in both genres.
“Nude photographs of attractive women were what kept naturist publications commercially afloat,” Pollen writes. “The best selling naturist magazine was said to have 100,000 readers per issue by the end of the 1940s, even as naturism was declining in popularity.”
By the time social norms loosened in the late 1960s, naturist media was much more popular than the practice itself, partly because of clubs’ exclusionary, elitist practices. Naturist clubs still rigorously vetted applicants to avoid non-white, non-heterosexual members, and avoided class mixing by keeping high annual fees and far-off campsites. Unlike the pictures in their magazines, most naturists were middle-aged by the 1960s, and still obsessed with formal etiquette, tea parties, and good social standing, albeit in the nude. A dissatisfied attendee wrote, “For the most part I have found snobbery, prudery, and a terrible sense of shame to say nothing of the terrible bore of rules, regulations, by-laws, resolutions, elections, [and] petty politics.”
While some of these issues still plague Britain’s small, mostly male movement today, Pollen reports that 21st-century naturists mostly consider nudism to be a relaxing lifestyle rather than an aspirational vocation. Nudism in a Cold Climate tells the fascinating story of how wearing nothing has changed.
Nudism in a Cold Climate: The Visual Culture of Naturists in Mid-20th-Century Britain by Anabella Pollen is published by Atelier Éditions.
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