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Prison Suits
John L. Kyff, Jr. *

(As we stated in Bridges v. California, "No purpose in ratifying the Bill of Rights was clearer than that of securing for the people of the United States much greater freedom of religion, expression, assembly, and petition than the people of Great Britain had ever enjoyed."  U.S. Supreme Court, Kingsley Pictures Corp. v. Regents, 1958)

No matter
how much or
how little
they cover,
swim suits
that there is
about parts
of the body.

the rags


In 1763 when Tobias Smollett, a Scottish writer, introduced seashore bathing as recreation in Great Britain, and at the time the first ten amendments to the constitution of the United States ... The Bill of Rights ... went into effect on December 15, 1791, bathing suits had not yet been invented.  Then and for many years thereafter the customary attire for the people of America and Great Britain who swam was the birthday suit ... nude.  Some present-day Americans may be shocked to learn that President John Adams, who served as a member of the First and Second Continental Congress and succeeded George Washington as President of the United States (serving from 1797-1801), was known to take time off from the affairs of state to go skinny-dipping in the Potomac ... a public place.  However, his contemporaries were not shocked and more than likely would have thought him a prig had he dressed to bathe!

President Adams was not the only national leader of that time ... or since ... who enjoyed and exercised the liberty to publicly swim in the altogether.  Public nude seashore bathing had been popularized during the reign of and by King George III (1760-1820).  On Sunday, July 1, 1789, to the accompaniment of "God Save The King" played by a band nearby, the king first waded into the sea at Weymouth ... nude.  He enjoyed the experience and, together with his wife Charlotte and various nobles, often bathed nude at the beach throughout his reign.  Public nude bathing was further popularized by King George IV, who reigned from 1820-1830.  He loved the water and swam nude at Brighton.  By 1844, after the opening of the railway line between London and Brighton in 1841, nude seashore bathing on Great Britain's public beaches had become a widespread and popular activity.  Throughout human history nudity has been the norm, not the exception, for swimming as well as many other activities.  Our word gymnasium (from the Greek) directly translates as "place to be nude".  The original Olympics were fully nude.  Early Christians were baptized nude.  And heavy labor such as field work, construction, and commercial fishing, etc. was often done nude, both to make the work less strenuous and to save wear and tear on the very limited amount of clothing most people had.

Nothing in life is permanent and with the passing of George IV and his successor William IV, Queen Victoria rose to the throne in 1837, ruling until her death in 1901.  Public nudity on Brighton's beaches conflicted with the Queen's and the Church of England's concept of decency and modesty.  (The heresy of God's creation being deemed indecent first infected the church through the Greek philosophy of Gnosticism in the 1st century, and then gained greater strength in the Dark Ages and the Victorian Era.)  Victorian modesty dictated that even the legs of pianos be kept "decently" covered.  Coincidentally, in the 1830's Augustus Brozzi, an Italian immigrant living in Great Britain, had introduced the bathing suit ... in the name of decency, as he perceived it.  It was a curious-looking red-and-white horizontally stripped costume that covered the bather from neck to ankles and shoulders to wrists.  It looked like and came to be popularly and appropriately known as the "prison suit."  From its inception the bathing suit ... designed and intended not to fulfill any utility of purpose but rather to express a particular and far from universally accepted concept of prudish modesty and contempt for the body ... met with much popular resistance.  Bathing suit manufacturers probably would have gone out of business had it not been for the Queen's government and the Church uniting to assure a great cover-up on Britain's beaches.  With such power united (constitutionally prohibited here), the sale of "prison suits" and the profits of Britain's textile barons were assured.  (Even Eskimos might be sold refrigerators when jail is made the consequence for not purchasing a useless, unwanted commodity.)

In the 1800's, as in ages past and since, some people conscientiously objected to conforming to state and/or church-dictated concepts and expressions of modesty or contempt for the body.  They objected and refused to trade in their liberty and wealth for superfluous, unwanted prison suits.  The Reverend Francis Kilvert, an Anglican priest fond of bathing nude on the Isle of Wight, was one.  He called them "dreadful rags" and confided to his diary in the 1870's that "If women don't want to see naked men in the sea, they needn't look."  Many, for reasons of conscience, have never accepted the medieval notion, attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas in the 1200's, that human nudity - the natural-born/God created physical state of our being ... is fundamentally indecent.  They knew this was inconsistent with God's proclamation in scripture that his creation is "very good."  So they resisted being coerced by church or state to use their body as a billboard to express with costume the dehumanizing idea that their very person was inherently indecent.  In this spirit and in reaction to the "prison suit" and the meaning it conveyed, naturism as a formal lifestyle philosophy was born in Germany in the 1890's.  It quickly spread to other European nations and to the United States in the 1920's.  Following WWII naturism has experienced phenomenal growth, widespread popularity, and both popular and world government acceptance.

Bathing suit styles have changed significantly from the red-and-white striped "prison suits" of the 1800's designed to "modestly" conceal the "indecent" human body.  But modern bathing suits ... designed to reveal the body erotically ... are no less "prison suits" than were those of 150 years ago.  Bathing suits of any style have never served any useful function.  They are in fact dysfunctional to swimming and sunbathing.  They exist to express symbolically a negative religious concept.  They scream out, "Humanity is born shamefully indecent!"  and by wearing them one says, "I agree that I am indecent."  Nudity for swimming and other activities expresses a positive religious or non-religious concept.  By swimming, sunbathing, working out, sports playing, running, walking, etc., etc. nude one says, "I am decent, dignified, noble, and acceptable."  So long as the state coerces individuals by force of law to wear bathing costumes, or other completely superfluous clothing, of any style or design, they will remain "prison suits": and those who are coerced into them ... prisoners.  Liberty and prison suits are fundamentally incompatible: our forefathers never envisioned liberty to be merely the right to choose between cheap, discount store or expensive fashion-designed, state-mandated, superfluous, dysfunctional prison suits.

The body acceptance movement in the United States today is truly a continuation of the historic struggle of a people to enjoy the concept of liberty guaranteed by the Bill of Rights ... to be free of religious oppression, to have freedom of conscience and expression in matters of opinion and beliefs, to be in control of their appearance and secure in their person from unreasonable arrest and imprisonment ... as was President Adams while swimming nude in the Potomac.

Throughout the modern world ... in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Europe, etc... Contemporary governments have for years recognized that fundamental human rights apply to the issue of body acceptance.  There are few countries remaining in the free world (the U.S. being one of those few) that coerce people by force of law to wear bathing suits against their free will and conscience at all public recreational sites and which do not provide for public nude recreation.  In some countries (like Denmark) people are free to wear whatever they choose ... including nothing at all ... at all public beaches, public parks, and in yards (screened from view or not) around their homes.  In most others, at least public beaches are either divided into clothes-required and clothes-optional areas or separate, conveniently accessible, legal, clothes-optional beaches are designated.  Even on most clothes-required European beaches topless and backless bathing styles are commonly worn by both men and women, young and old.  It is also accepted for young children to be nude on such clothes-required beaches.

Healthy body acceptance and the God-given right of the individual to freedom of conscience and expression ... the right not to express with dysfunctional costumes any ideas, much less outdated and controversial concepts of modesty, decency, shame, and contempt for the body ... will come to America's shores despite any and all government efforts to stop it.  Ideas and social change may not long be suppressed by politicians and bureaucrats or unjustly imposed upon a free people by law.  When this article was first penned in 1986, 18% of the American population had already at one time or another as adults shed their "prison suits" in mixed-gender recreational settings and most others (72%) conceded their right to do so.  And these significant statistics are much higher yet when American's over the age of 50 were excluded from the sample.  As you can imagine the level of acceptance has increased since 1986.  This is indicative of the rapid attitude and social changes of 20th century America, which are now growing exponentially with the ease of communication provided by the Internet.  It is, however, unfortunate that in the process of peaceful, healthy change and the exercise of liberty so many American citizens must suffer unjust arrest, prosecution, fines, imprisonment, expense and indignity for simply being themselves and not conforming their appearance to the tastes of others in a pluralistic country founded on ... but that has apparently forgotten the meaning of ... liberty and justice for all.

As more and more Americans reject the rags of shame for reasons of conscience, some governmental jurisdictions will respect the constitutional right of people to freely associate, communicate and peacefully use public recreational facilities nude ... to communicate the dignity of and their acceptance for the body, as well as to promote whole body acceptance ... but unfortunately, it is also expected that other government jurisdictions, as in the past, may seek to suppress these fundamental rights.  Do not be intimidated.  Timidity in the face of adversity leads to slavery, not liberty.  Assert your rights.  Do not wait to be given liberty ... demand it!  There is more strength and power in numbers than there is alone, so this year join with others seeking the liberty of their conviction that the whole human body is decent and dignified.  Come out of hiding, not merely to sunbathe and swim nude but to peacefully associate with others of like mind and purpose, to celebrate our freedom and the inherent goodness and dignity of the whole human body, to assert our civil rights, communicate and proselytize our beliefs ... to live liberty.  You may be surprised to learn that no one need give us liberty ... we already have it, even if we've failed to exercise it: God's gift that no one or millions of ones is empowered to take from us.

*This article originally written by John L. Kyff, Jr. was first published in "The Event" (now Naturally magazine) in 1986 and has been updated and edited for this site with permission.