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Hey, at least the Austin City Council isn't regulating swimwear anymore

 A group of Austinites sit on the shores of Deep Eddy from sometime in the 1920s.
Austin History Center, PICA 00916
A photo of Deep Eddy from sometime in the 1920s.

This story was originally published on June 1, 2016.

The dog days of summer are nipping at Austin’s collective heel and – though the shuttered city pools and recent gloomy weather in Austin may tell you differently – it’s pool season. And, while you may not be able to bring a beer or even your dog to a city pool, at least the city’s not still regulating the attire of every single swimmer, like it did when it passed the 1919 bathing suit ordinance.

The city ordinance required every swimmer over the age of 12 to wear a bathing suit “which shall be provided with a skirt or flap fastened at the waist entirely around the body and extending at least midway between the hips and knees, and with trunks which shall cover the thighs at least the full length of said flap or skirt.”

The ordinance also prohibited any lascivious displays and maintained that “no person shall loiter…in any place not adjacent to the bathing pool or place…without having some robe or covering securely fastened over such bathing suit and extending to within twelve inches of the ground.”

Violating the ordinance would net swimmers a citation for a misdemeanor and a fine of up to $200, which would cost roughly $2,700 in 2016.

It is a bad example for the younger generation. It is heading us toward nudism...Do we propose to let down the bars to nudism?

Two years later, in July of 1921, two men, Ben Pierce and Charles Ravey, decided to test the law, donning two-piece “track suit style” suits that lacked a flap at Deep Eddy. They were arrested.

After the arrest, Pierce told the Statesman the two intended to test the law by violating it.

“It appears to me to be the most respectable suit that a man can wear, and I purchased my suit for that reason,” Pierce said. “It was our intention to test the bathing suit ordinance in regard to the style of suit worn by us and we shall if necessary carry our cases to higher courts.”

Believe it or not, Pierce and Ravey were both given a jury trial and their cases were dismissed.

Aside from that dust-up, it seems, the law was “fairly liberal and up to date,” according to an aptly titled 1925 Austin Statesman article “Yep, We Have a Bathing Suit Law–Here It Is,” which praised the ordinance for its foresight.

Ten years later, however, some people were complaining about young and old pulchritudinous pool-goers venturing to pools across the city wearing only their trunks or skirts. While the city ordinance required a robe for those outside of the immediate area of the pool, it didn’t have a provision banning somebody from riding in only their bathing suit on, say, a street car, a jitney or a bootleg cab.

“It’s indecent,” said City Marshal J.N. Littlepage. “It is becoming far too common.”

That indecency caught the eye of a group of Hyde Park pastors, who compelled Mayor Tom Miller and the Austin City Council to, for once, actually enforce the law at an August 1935 meeting of the council.

Led by Rev. W.J. Bugg of Hyde Park, the pastors lambasted the swimmers of Austin, particularly at Shipe Pool, and called on the city to “enforce the ordinance and protect the righteousness of the homes,” Bugg said, according to an Austin American-Statesman account:

"Not only little children, but older people, both of the male and female sex, loiter around the pools, go to and from the pools, clad only in scanty bathing suits. They wear no wraps, no towels about them...It is a bad example for the younger generation. It is heading us toward nudism...Do we propose to let down the bars to nudism?"

Miller balked at a crackdown of the swimsuit ordinance, suggesting that lifeguards had been proficient at expelling “flagrant” violators. Still, he admitted, he hadn’t been swimming in quite a while.

“I used to swim some,” Miller said. “But since I got so fat and out of shape I haven’t had the nerve to drape any kind of bathing suit around me."

Bugg battled Miller’s humor with brimstone, suggesting Shipe Pool’s swimmers had fallen from grace like Adam and Eve, to which Miller responded pointedly: When Eve wore a fig leaf as a negligée, just what was the original sin?

Miller and the council ultimately voted to investigate the clergymen’s claims. The city ended up putting up placards urging swimmers to wear robes to and from the pool, and Parks Superintendent James Garrison presented a report of his findings to council.

A week later, the Austin City Council voted unanimously to repeal the bathing suit ordinance. That said, it meant that there was no longer a specific dress code, meaning Austinites were free and clear to wear whatever suit they wanted to city pools, a prospect that worried Austin American-Statesman columnist Lyman Jones in 1950, suggesting the “city fathers committed a sin of omission”:

“Nothing wrong in [repealing the law], of course, except that they clean forgot, evidently, to write a new ordinance setting a somewhat more modern limit on the length and breadth of bathing costume. So, it would appear that, technically at least, there is no law which says you cannot wear the most Gallic of swimming suit.”

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