In Nothing But Their Shoes

Annebella Pollen, Nudism in a Cold Climate: The Visual Culture of Naturists in Mid-20th Century Britain

Atelier Éditions, 224pp, £25.00, ISBN 9781733622066

reviewed by Anna Neima

I started reading Annebella Pollen’s Nudism in a Cold Climate while standing in the queue to get my Covid booster. It was a long queue — snaking around the block and out to the park so that even those of us who had joined early had to wait several hours before we made it inside. But within minutes of cracking open the spine I noticed that my nearest neighbours were inching closer to me so that they could look over my shoulder. Perhaps they wanted to catch a glimpse of the two middle-age men and young boy engaged in a serious game of nude croquet; or more probably of the shot of a young woman sprawled elegantly on a rock, winner of a Second World War survey about which pin-up was most worth fighting for. Soon I was drawn into a group discussion of the kind of subjects that I’d hesitate to bring up even with my closest friends. Is pubic hair attractive? Why is it that Europeans always seem more comfortable without their clothes than Brits? Wouldn’t it just be too damn cold to be a nudist in the northern hemisphere? By the time our knot of talkers had reached the front of the queue, I felt I’d stumbled on some of the most fascinating, open-minded people in London. Either that, or Pollen has achieved a rare feat: making the British comfortable talking about bodies.

This is a book you could enjoy just for the pictures. On the front cover is a quintessentially British image: a woman pouring herself a cup of tea – the twist in the tail being that she has no clothes on (though to preserve propriety, a ‘modesty flap’ carrying the book’s title has been placed over her breasts). Inside, naked men, women and the occasional child caper and cavort, lounge and simper. The black-and-white photographs are exquisitely beautiful, but what chiefly struck me was their charm and their humour. You could tell that Pollen was enjoying herself while she was working on this subject — one that she was first alerted to by the numerous nudist magazines that she came across while foraging at car-boot sales. Her previous work was on amateur photography and a utopian youth movement, and she brings to this latest project a deep knowledge of mass visual culture and a quiet appreciation of the eccentric antics of idealists.

The main revelation of the book comes not the images but the text. Pollen tells the little-known story of the 20th-century nudist movement in Britain as it passed through three phases: rarefied, near-utopian idealism; growing popular appeal; and then a struggle to survive. Each of the three phases in the book is introduced by a vignette. We begin in the 1920s. ‘A nudist camp somewhere in England . . . A folding table is laden with tea in floral cups and saucers, plates of sliced brown bread, and a hardback book of poetry. Leather sandals are cast aside.’ At this point the nudist movement was small and dominated by a bunch of intellectuals who saw themselves as part of a radical political movement. They hoped to build a better world in the wake of the First World War by encouraging people to free themselves physically, mentally and spiritually from the debilitating effects of ‘civilisation’ by escaping from the ‘dark walls’ of their clothing. Being naked achieved such moral high ground, at least in some quarters, that one vicar condemned even the swimsuit as a ‘satanic invention’; it was not nudity that promoted dangerous, erotic thoughts, it was the titillating concealment of bodies.

By the 1940s and 50s the nudist movement had achieved wider appeal, but much of its idealism had dissipated. The majority of members no longer claimed to want to change the world; they just wanted to take off their clothes. As one memorably put it, nudism was simply a hobby, no different to ‘breeding canaries or collecting horse-brasses or carving model boats’. At the same time, nude imagery was becoming more popular and more commercialised. Where the earliest nudist tracts had contained few pictures, nudist magazines were now lavishly illustrated and some of them were shifting hundreds of thousands of copies per issue. Clearly these were not all being read by dedicated nudists. What had started as a movement that championed radical social reform seemed now, at least at the edges, to be turning into a profitable pornography business.

The final phase that Pollen focuses on is the 1960s. One might have imagined that the nudist movement would have achieved a more widespread acceptance in this permissive era, but it was not so, as the vignette leading into the chapter suggests: Britain’s nudist camps are now defended by barbed wire. The movement’s members in this period tended to be middle-aged, stodgily obsessed with rules, regulations and petty politics, and unable to connect with the next generation and the sexually liberal zeitgeist. At the same time, nudist photography became entangled in long-running battles with the police over punitive obscenity laws. By the early 1970s, which is where the book ends, the nude image had become ubiquitous in popular culture, but it was sexualised and commercialised — a far cry from the nudist movement’s founding aim of encouraging a new, ‘sane’ respect for the naked body.

Wisely, Pollen tempers her rollicking tale by paying close attention to deeply problematic issues within the nudist movement. Its visual culture idealised young, thin, able-bodied white women. Most of the photographs the movement generated were taken by men and purchased by men. Some of them were of children. Gay men were largely excluded from the nudist movement (the existence of gay women was simply denied). Black and brown people were not welcomed in nudist clubs and rarely appeared in nudist photographs; if they did, they tended to be exoticised and eroticised. Pollen does a good job of flagging these, and many other, issues while not obliterating the sheer fun of her story.

This book did not persuade me to rush off to a nudist beach and take off my clothes — in fact one of its delights is its evocation of the sheer discomfort of being a nudist: there’s a great photo early on of three pioneers digging the earth in nothing but their shoes and one can’t but wince at all that vulnerable naked flesh. Nonetheless, it is a brilliant read: highly entertaining, offering a new perspective on the 20th century and a new way – at once more critical and more appreciative — to look at the images of nudes that inundate contemporary culture. Perhaps most importantly, this is a book that will make you a most desirable neighbour in a queue, and isn’t that, fundamentally, what we all want?

Anna Neima is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Warwick, and author of The Utopians: Six Attempts to Build the Perfect Society and Practical Utopia: The Many Lives of Dartington Hall.