Inside the Collection

Remembering Australian summer holidays

A staged colour photograph taken in the 1970s for advertising featuring seven young men wearing board shorts. The man in the centre is holding a young woman with blond hair and wearing a bikini.
Promotional photograph for Speedo swimwear taken in the 1970s at Sydney’s Tamarama Beach by David Mist. Model Jarmilla Lloyd is in the bikini with seven male models. MAAS collection 96/44/1-2/142. Photo: David Mist

The beach has always been the ultimate destination for summer holidays whether it was just a few kilometres away or a long car trip. Back in the 1960s cars weren’t as reliable as today. Even for a relatively short drive you’d stop off at the service station to have the oil, water and tyres checked and to pick up maps. Some families set off before dawn to beat the holiday traffic (what traffic?). Cars had no air-con or radios let alone all the high tech entertainment of today. Radiators would boil, tyres blow-out, kids carsick, seats were sticky, and the journey felt intolerably long. Did those rubber strips hanging down the back of the car really prevent car sickness?

Five fold-out coloured road maps, consisting of two copies of the 'Shell Road Guide: Newcastle District', two copies of the 'Shell Road Guide: Sydney-Brisbane, Pacific Beautizone, Summerland, City of Gold Coast', and the 'Shell Road Guide: New South Wales'.
These 1960s Shell fold-out road maps advised of road surfaces (most Australian roads were still unsealed), distances between towns, camping areas and Shell service stations. Kids could get special Shell passports which could be stamped at each service station with a different picture relating to the area. MAAS collection 2011/73/1. Photo: Sotha Bourn, MAAS

Nevertheless, it was all worthwhile once you arrived at the beach with the sun sparkling on the waves. Armed with your orange moulded-plastic Zippy Board you’d race down to the water only to come screaming back up again with blue bottle tentacles wrapped around your legs.

Lifesavers typified the bronzed Aussie and added both safety and glamour to the beach. They worked long hours with much more primitive equipment that today at un-netted beaches where the increased likelihood of sharks added to the hazards. Having the shark alarm go off was terrifying especially if you’d gone out beyond the breaking waves.

Black and white photograph showing three lifesavers wearing full strapped costumes and caps on the water's edge kneeling over a man on whom they are demonstrating resuscitation.
Print from a negative for David Mist’s 1969 book Sydney: A Book of Photographs featuring lifesavers demonstrating resuscitation at a Manly surf carnival. MAAS collection 96/44/1-5/4/157/1. Photo: David Mist

Rescues by lifesavers were really impressive as they had to swim out with the harness. The crew on the water’s edge would pull the distressed swimmer back to the beach with the reel, which was phased out in 1994.

The reel comprises a large, polished wooden cylinder with cotton rope wound around it. The cylinder is set in a frame stand which could be carried to the water's edge. The name of the surf club is painted on the sides of the cylinder.
This surf lifesaving reel was used by South Curl Curl Surf Lifesaving Club in about 1960. MAAS Collection 85/826. Photo: Andrew Frolows, MAAS
A black and white photograph of a two year old girl standing in shallow water wearing a swimming costume made with elasticised shirring.
Little Miss Barr wearing her bubble costume at The Entrance, NSW, in the late 1950s photographed by ‘The Man in White’ beach-side photographer. Like street photographers of the time, commercial photographers snapped holiday makers until the 1960s when more people took their own photos. Photo: Simpson family

Whether you donned your swim suit, bathers, trunks, swimmers, togs or cossie, chances are they’d have been made by Speedo. From the late 1940s shirred cotton ‘bubble’ costumes became popular, especially for girls, while in the 1950s women were glamorously corseted in shirred and elasticised fabrics with moulded bra cups, boning and heavy seaming. Two pieces of the time were demure by later standards with waist-high bottoms obscuring the naval which was painted out by newspaper photographers if snapped by accident. Post-war immigrants caused a stir at the beach by wearing their scanty European-style swimwear with men wearing brief costumes of elasticised material without a modesty skirt.

A bikini of multi-coloured patterned cotton fabric finished in pink, grey, black, white and yellow. The top has moulded cups and button fastening. The pants have elastic sides with an additional modesty panel flap attached over front.
Cotton bikini made by Emilio Pucci, Florence, Italy, in about 1965. MAAS collection 85/2866. Photo: Sotha Bourn, MAAS

A version of the French bikini made an appearance at Surfers Paradise in 1952. Labelled obscene fashion, concerned beach goers called for its banning. Beach inspectors became the arbiters of respectability. In the 1960s they patrolled the sand with a tape measure in the pockets of their white shorts, removing women whose bikini sides were less than 10 cm wide.

By the 1970s women’s bikinis became even briefer but conversely men covered up more with the popularity of board shorts in Hawaiian prints. Reaching to the knees, they protected board riders from chaffed thighs while lying on their boards paddling out to catch waves.

Two pairs of men's board shorts in green and pink with inserts on the sides consisting of multi-coloured polka dots or squares. There are two press-stud fastening and a Velcro fly at the centre front. A black brand label is stitched to the front left leg displaying a logo and the text 'Quiksilver' in silver thread.
By the 1980s board shorts became shorter like these two pairs designed by Simon Buttonshaw and made in the early 1980s by Quiksilver Inc., of Torquay, Victoria. MAAS collection 2007/175/2. Photo: Sotha Bourn, MAAS

By the mid-1970s the tape measures had disappeared and the string bikini arrived here via St Tropez and Rio de Janeiro. Teenage girls crocheted their own bikinis probably blushing today recalling how brief they were.

For kids growing up in the 1950s and 1960s the summer holidays were often synonymous with sunburn. Having to gingerly turn over in bed and the strangely gratifying feeling of peeling off the old skin were hallmarks of January. Fair-skinned kids suffered the ignominy of having to swim wearing white cotton tee-shirts which were nothing like today’s lightweight rash vests. In retrospect tee-shirts may have saved them from later skin cancers. With none of the proprietary sunscreens around all you had was white zinc cream which would get covered in sand.

Rectangular colour offset print poster in landscape format. The poster promotes the 'Slip! Slop! Slap!' sun protection campaign and is titled 'You won't leave a gap if you Slip + Slop + Slap!". The poster has a blue and yellow background and features cartoon style illustrations of a snowman. The snowman is depicted three times: slipping on a shirt; slopping on some sunscreen; and slapping on a hat.
This poster promoting the ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ sun protection message was produced by the NSW Department of Health and the Cancer Council in the 1990s. The use of the snowman was a quirky way of showing that the sun did damage in the festive Australian summer season. MAAS collection 2001/75/63-2. Photo: Steven Agius, MAAS

It’s hard to believe that in endeavouring to get a good tan beach goers paid to be sprayed with salty-smelling mutton bird oil called Vita-Tan. It was the concoction of the eccentric industrial chemist, John L. Paterson, who applied it roaming the beaches up and down the East Coast of Australia wearing a bathing suit and pith helmet topped with a stuffed mutton bird. The famous pale red-coloured liquid Vita-Tan or Vita-Sun to ‘tan without tears’ was also applied at Bondi Beach by Basil McDonald who rented out rubber surfoplanes and deck chairs as well.

Not all the holidays were spent at the beach. In the 1960s and 1970s not many families had backyard swimming pools so a great deal of summer was spent at the local pool. At the beginning of the season the pool would be freezing cold. You’d all get out with chattering teeth and lie on the hot concrete leaving a row of Shroud of Turin imprints. The huge quantities of chlorine turned blonde-headed kids’ hair green and everyone’s eyes were bloodshot. Virtually no-one wore googles despite spending most of the time underwater seeing how far you could go holding your breath. If you did wear goggles they were the face mask type where you’d pretend to be Lloyd Bridges from Sea Hunt.

The 1956 Olympics in Melbourne encouraged the construction of ‘Olympic Pools’ in numerous towns and cities. County kids were especially reliant on the town pool otherwise it was under the sprinkler on the front lawn between 6 and 7 at night during water restrictions.

A single worn rubber thong from a pair with red soles and straps and white upper soles. The straps are moulded with musical notation motifs. The thong is so well worn to the point that the imprint of the heel and individual toes are worn into the red rubber.
A well-used rubber thong from a pair worn in the late 1970s, which cost 99 cents at the time. Dunlop Australia produced vast numbers of thongs during the 1960s and 1970s. MAAS collection 89/1346. Gift of A W Fuller, 1989. Photo: Sue Stafford, MAAS

Strangely enough another legacy of the 1956 Olympics was that other great Australian cultural icon, rubber thongs. Japanese Olympic swimmers wearing zori sandals poolside apparently influenced Australian thong-wearing. They were practical footwear for hot tarmac and sand as well as bindii eye-laden lawns. Summer thong-wearing became so wide spread here that Australian feet became wider than in other countries. Six weeks in thongs or barefoot made squeezing into brand new school shoes a trial. The Australian shoe sizing system now gives an extra half inch width for Australian shoes compared to American sizing.

Once the ads came on TV for school lunch boxes and drink bottles and exercise books filled the newsagents it was time to go back to school. You’d be barely recognisable with a face full of freckles and flat, wide feet.

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, December 2018

Further reading:

Townsend, Helen, Baby Boomers: Growing up in Australia in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Simon & Schuster, Brookvale, NSW, 1988.

Wells, Lana, Sunny Memories, Greenhouse Publications Pty Ltd, Richmond, Victoria, 1982.

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