From 1935 through to 1961, Lifeguards (then known as Beach Inspectors) were the protectors of virtue on Sydney’s beaches. Apart from rescuing people from the surf and keeping hooligans, ‘deros’ and dogs off the beach, they were responsible for policing what people wore.
In 1935, under Ordinance 52 of the Local Government Act, Beach Inspectors in NSW had to check that the swimming costumes for both men and women were suitably modest.
The legs of the costumes had to be at least three inches long and had to be high-waisted (i.e. three inches above the navel), the fabric had to cover the front of the torso from the armpits to the waist, and they had to have sturdy shoulder straps to keep the costumes in position.
One of the most notorious Beach Inspectors was Aub Laidlaw, who spent almost 40 years at Bondi Beach.
He was there for Black Sunday in 1938, and was also there when one of the first women sporting a bikini hit the promenade in 1946.
The bikini had debuted at a Paris poolside a few months before – it was named after the Bikini Atoll, which had been used for nuclear testing by the French – and for the next twenty years, it provoked clashes between the Beach Inspectors and young female beach goers.
According to Aub Laidlaw, the first woman who wore a bikini at Bondi in October 1946 was mobbed by a crowd of wolf-whistling and cat-calling boys who tried to undo the tie string of her bikini top. She was escorted out the back of the pavilion and onto a tram.
Laidlaw was a regular on the beach over the next twenty years, patrolling the beach with a tape measure, making sure the swimming costumes met regulations. When not on patrol, he and the other inspectors listened out for the ‘beach telegraph’ (aka beach gossip) for when a bikini-clad lady would arrive at Bondi. Those deemed too scantily dressed were summarily escorted from the beach.
On the October long weekend in 1961, Laidlaw sent over 50 women packing from the beach, leading to the month-long ‘Bikini Battle’. Within a few months, the Local Government Act was changed, and it was instead only required that beach goers wore costumes that were ‘reasonable and adequate’.