Beach scene, 1930s / by Sam Hood (Atomic/Alamy Stock Photo)

Year after year, the arrests for toplessness at public beaches generated headlines and signaled the start of summer.

Newspapers ran stories about the nearly naked outlaws, and leaders denounced the public display of nipples.

No shirtless bather will be allowed “to mar the high standard and fine appearance” of Long Island’s newly created Ocean Beach Park, said resolute local Police Chief Philip B. Kohut, after the trial of three men arrested for swimming topless.

Men.

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That’s right. Seems like no big deal today. Shirtless men everywhere — on the beach, at swimming pools, jogging along neighborhood streets.

But 1930s America lived in fear of the male nipple. It was illegal in most states and cities for men to go anywhere shirtless, even at the beach.

So yes, nearly 100 years ago, men fought for the right to go topless.

Which is a little funny, right?

Because today, women are doing the same thing in Ocean City, where a group of five sunbathers has sued for the right to decide how much of their bodies to show at the beach. They argue that because men walk on the beach shirtless, women should be able to do so, too.

Last month a federal judge ruled that the beach town can continue to enforce its ban on topless women as the lawsuit plays out.

Ocean City leaders argue that their town is a family-friendly resort. And families — the same families that pass bongs and shot glasses and sexually explicit T-shirts being peddled on the boardwalk — are not ready for so much skin.

These are the same arguments men who wanted to swim shirtless faced in the 1920s, when they were expected to wear full swim suits — all with tank tops to hide the nipples, most of them made of wool. The fancier models even had attached swim skirts to add a little more mystery to what was going on south of the belt-line — skirts that were a requirement in many swimming pools.

And men rebelled, showing up in trunks, pulling off their shirts or rolling down the tank tops and getting locked up.

A headline on a June 16, 1934, Associated Press story called it the “Perennial Battle of togs” before listing which cities and states would jail men for indecency if they showed their chests.

“New York City, for example, is that way about half-naked natators at municipal beaches. It arrests them on sight. Fines of $1 are the penalty. The city fathers insist on complete bathing suits — tops and trunks, or one-piece suits combining both.”

Many places where folks understood the outcome of a water-meets-light-colored fabric equation specifically banned all-white suits.

In D.C., men were urged to swim in the one-piece suits their hotels provided.

And the Northeastern fashion of flirting with lawlessness by wearing a tank but letting the straps slip to reveal some pecs was strictly and specifically prohibited.

“All we demand is decency,” William E. Whittacker, secretary to the Boston Metropolitan District Commission told the Associated Press. “But we won’t allow slipping straps.”

Geez, so many rules.

Men grew tired of being told what they could do with their bodies and kept rebelling, especially after observing the way dames swooned after seeing Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller bare-chested in the 1932 “Tarzan the Ape Man” flick.


Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane and a bare-chested Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan in 1932. (OFF/AFP/Getty Images)

The problem, of course, was that not all men looked like dreamboat Johnny Weissmuller.

Not all women were thrilled with the views their non-Olympian peers provided. A group of pearl-clutching New Yorkers said they had “no desire to gaze upon hairy chested men,” according to a June 29, 1936, Associated Press story.

“In this year of campaigns we are having our own drive, and we won’t stop until every hairy chested man covers up on the beach or removes the curls from his chest,” said Grace Donohue, a spokeswoman for the group who demanded men wear shirts or wax.

Nevertheless, they persisted.

One hot August day in 1935, police rounded up, arrested and fined 42 men who protested and swam topless on the beach in Atlantic City, according to the New York Times. City official Thomas D. Taggart Jr. logged each of their arrests and collected a $2 fine from each bare-chested man.

The summer of 1936 was the summer of the men’s no-shirt movement, and arrests and protests and slipped straps were an epidemic.

But next year, in the epicenter of the men’s protests and mass arrests, a lengthy experience with “bareback bathing,” as some called it, changed one important man’s mind.

“ ‘Bareback’ bathing for men, heretofore taboo in Atlantic City, broke down the last line of official resistence today and will be allowed this Summer,” the New York Times reported on March 29, 1937. “Mayor C.D. White succeeded in holding off the invasion of shirtless bathing suits all last Summer on the ground they were ‘not nice.’ But today he returned from a vacation in Florida a convert to the style.”

A judge in New York overturned the ban the same year. And boom, male nipples were free.

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