The body beautiful, Rosemary McLeod

Leisure and Pleasure: Reshaping and Revealing the New Zealand Body 1900-1960 
Caroline Daley
Auckland University Press, $39.99,
ISBN 186940291X

Undressed: New Zealand fashion designers tell their stories
Stacy Gregg
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN 014301899X

It may be only recently that firemen and All Blacks took to stripping for the camera, but homoerotic narcissism in this country has a long and noble history of flexing and glowering. Why, early last century we were dropping our duds in the bush in the name of gymnosophy. And before that … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Caroline Daley has set out to survey the history of New Zealanders’ obsession with physical perfection from 1900 to 1960, a cut-off point which neatly predates hippies and widespread naked antics in the name of things other than gymnosophy, though possibly equally noble in their beige and hairy way. Her entry and exit point is Eugen Sandow, a man whose publicity shots it is difficult to contemplate now without hilarity, but who was apparently a cult figure just over a century ago. It was then that Sandow made his way to Australia and New Zealand, billed as the “Strongest Man on Earth”.

In those gentler times he was able to pose in leopard-skin briefs with a waxed moustache while nobody tittered, and women could fondle his muscles while grown men swooned. It is reassuring, somehow, to read that he married. That must have made everything all right.

I have a passing interest in the after-shock of Sandow’s tour, as it turns out, in that I suffered from it for five years of my childhood. A positive mania for achieving physical perfection and fitness seems to have followed in his wake, by Daley’s account, and one school that took up his plan was Chilton House in Wellington. This later became Chilton St James, where every day after regular school ended, we boarders were required to do an hour’s compulsory sport. We also went on long forced marches in the weekend. Thanks to Daley’s book I now know why we were weighed and measured and exercised and dragged through those gorse bushes and clay tracks with such diligence: we had to shape up for Sandow, who cast a long shadow.

Moving on from Sandow and the cult of the scantily clad body with perfect pecs, Daley gives an account of the origins of nudism in this country. This practice was once known as gymnosophy; as with the heroic rippling poses of Sandow and his ilk, the Greeks have had a lot to answer for. Nazi Germany does as well; its young folk were, as WWII loomed, hearty and healthy and free of sexual thoughts thanks to hiking in the nude and doing their physical jerks together. Alas, we lacked those stirring Nazi songs, but our own health experts were impressed. The taint of eugenics didn’t put them off.

I can’t imagine why we Chilton girls didn’t hike naked in public like the Hitler Youth and yodel our way through the Tararuas, but at least we had communal showers to return to, and they fitted the military model on which so much of the physical cult Daley describes seems to be based.

Implicit in this quest for perfection and the well-oiled human machine is the drive to impose standardisation and conformity, as any old Chilton girl knows. There is one way to look, just as there is one way to think, and Sandow longed for his system of physical jerks to become compulsory everywhere. I suspect that this cult of the body beautiful was urged on by the growth of film and photography, disseminating ideals of perfection throughout the world during the period Daley covers, and after.

All this imagery and effort was not about sexual attractiveness, as it may be today, but driven by some belief in perfectibility alone. Sex, after all, implies some sense of connectedness, but the cult of the physical that Daley describes is more like autoeroticism. One’s glorious, muscle-bound self is enough – that and some form of high-minded dogma that encourages a sense of gratifying superiority.

From nudism Daley moves on to the emergence of beauty contests and the struggles to establish both mixed public bathing and sunbathing on beaches. Who knew where this would lead, as it inevitably did? Oddly enough the weekly newspaper Truth, considered too scurrilous for my childhood household, emerges as an almost heroic entity in the contemporary debate. Perhaps because of the paper’s obsession with crime coverage its editorial staff seems to have had a keen ear for the silly, and a robust and grounded humor that was sadly lacking among the earnest body cultists.

Daley’s detailed research is at times more tiring than exhaustive, the detail is often repetitive, and her book is more of a discussion than a coherent argument. But that said, she has opened up a fascinating field, and one wishes she had followed the trail into the present. There seems to be an inviting line, for example, from the nudists’ innocent long-ago longing to have naked women and children around their stamping ground to the Bert Potter excesses at his Centrepoint commune, where beliefs were equally high-minded and fundamentally off the point. Likewise it would be interesting to trace the path from the Sandow set’s belief in body fat and sloth as sinful to the present-day vogue for bulimia and anorexia among young women, bodybuilding among men, the gay cult of the physical ideal, and the rise of the gym. The streak of moralising about the body is still with us, too, in the fashion for crank diets and alternative medicines.

Fashion of another kind is the subject of Undressed inside which, its cover claims, New Zealand fashion designers tell their stories. They do not, of course; despite the Sandowian perfection of the naked female backside on the cover, and the weird high-heeled shoes she wears on spindly bare legs, the book within is antiseptic and devoid of both sexiness and point.

There is schoolgirlish fun to be had with the text’s mixed metaphors and clichés, however. Personal favourites include the claim that a certain book “caused a phenomenon while it struck a chord”, how “this was not the time to rock the boat by screaming out our individuality”, how “memories are shorter than hemlines”, how “labels stuck like superglue”, and how certain phrases have “become so hackneyed that they’ve become almost meaningless” – a concept so deliciously hackneyed itself that it must be savored slowly.

I must not be too unkind. This is a book, after all, that was produced by two journalists to order; it is hack work that had no particular point to make in the first place other than that we have fashion designers in this country and some of them do quite well although they have nothing interesting to say. Trelise Cooper, one of our more successful designers, thus observes insightfully, “I think that maybe I’ve hit a chord with women,” and follows that up with “I am very ordinary, really.” This may be some clue to the state of high fashion in this country; looking at women on the streets it’s a distinct possibility that she said it all.

What is truly unforgivable about this book is its shoddy presentation, the fuzzy black and white photographs that tell us nothing, and the sad clutch of colour photographs that tell us little more. This is a great example of not judging a book by its cover – as the actress said to the bishop – though I hope I do not cause a phenomenon in saying so. I would so hate to rock the boat.

 

Rosemary McLeod is a Wellington-based newspaper columnist.

 

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Posted in Art, History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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