Gorillas on the Beach

Twenty five years ago, three of these guys could have been fined for walking shirtless on the Rehoboth boardwalk. It’s true. Sure, there are some guys whom I’d rather not see without a shirt. But to legislate it? Well, that’s exactly what Rehoboth did, beginning in the 1930s and again in 1960 and in 1975.

It wasn’t until July 1980 that it finally became legal for men to walk on the Boardwalk without a shirt. That year, the City, in a 5-2 vote repealed its ordinance requiring males over the age of 5 to wear shirts on the Boardwalk after 6 p.m. and to wear shirts at all times “west of the Boardwalk.”

These ordinances, according to newspaper articles at the time, were put in place to protect Rehoboth’s “family image.” The 1975 affirmation of the ban was triggered supposedly because a city employee was spotted working outside without his shirt on. As absurd as it sounds, Rehoboth wasn’t alone in trying to keep the male torso covered.

It took a long time for the public to accept the idea of the bare male chest at the beach. The now infamous “Bathing Suit Regulations” issued in 1917 by the American Association of Park Superintendents—and quickly adopted by most public and private beaches throughout the nation—required men’s bathing suits to be worn with a shirt. The regulations were imposed in response to young beachgoers beginning to express a more relaxed and liberal view of revealing the body at the beach.

In the 1930s, the swimwear industry was revolutionized by the introduction of Lastex, a rubber yarn, and by the subsequent new form-fitting and pared down swimsuit designs like the “speed suit,” a one piece suit with deeply slashed armholes and closed leg trunks, and the “topper,” a convertible-style suit that allowed men to unzip and remove the top.

In 1933, the B.V.D. Company used Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller to promote its swimsuit line. Due to his recommendations of extra low cut arm holes on tank tops, a natural waist, and an extra full seat, what came about was the first pair of modern bathing trunks—which actually debuted first in France because conservatives in America still insisted on the two-piece suit. In an attempt to gain more public acceptance, companies tried to streamline the trunks with a more “dressed” look. This was done by showing a simulated fly front and giving them a kind of belt or buckle effect.

In 1936, the battle for men to wear only trunks on the beach heated up. Topless men were banned from the beaches of Atlantic City because the city fathers didn’t want “gorillas” on the beach. Galveston, Texas, still required men to wear tops. New York City and Cleveland permitted trunks and no tops. When Atlantic City finally acquiesced in 1937, the rest of the country followed suit, including Rehoboth Beach. City Ordinance 18 called for a $5 fine for unduly and improper exposure of his or her person on any beach or strand, boardwalk, or other public place within the City. It went on to say that male bathers could remove their top on the beach “east” of the Boardwalk and aren’t subject to this provision.

I’ve yet to uncover any articles or irate letters to the editor about all this—the microfiche at the Rehoboth Library isn’t the greatest quality… I can’t help but think that if topless men on the beach caused an uproar in Atlantic City, it certainly should have in a more conservative Rehoboth Beach.

On May 1, 2005, Cape May, New Jersey, lifted its ban on men wearing Speedos on the beach and also agreed to lift a rule that stopped bare-chested men from strolling the beach promenade. The “Speedo ban” was enacted in the 1960s in response to complaints about homosexual men who wore the suits on the beach. I’ve been told that this was just part of a larger effort by Cape May to get rid of gays and lesbians. I wouldn’t be surprised if the anti-gay atmosphere in Cape May coupled with the demise of the thriving gay ghetto in Atlantic City in the mid-70s when gambling arrived helped fuel Rehoboth’s rise in popularity among Mid-Atlantic gays and lesbians in the late 70s.

So gentleman, be proud, be bare. And embrace the gorilla within. Just look in the mirror first.


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