No dressing for dinner

Longing to let it all hang out? Jack O'Sullivan left his Y-fronts at reception to join the nudists of South Hants Sun Club
Click to follow
The Independent Online
As I walked up the winding drive, nothing seemed out of the ordinary: the sound of children in a swimming pool, the distant plink of tennis balls struck across hot Tarmac. Then I spotted something rather strange: a plump, white bottom pressed against the inside of a red phone box, like a huge, squashed nose. The owner turned as I passed: she clearly had nowhere to put her small change, let alone an address book. We exchanged benign smiles.

A genial, middle-aged woman, this naturist - a "noodist" according to the taxi driver who delivered me to South Hants Sun Club - made an unlikely revolutionary. And well-groomed Hampshire is not where you expect rebellions. Yet this tiny band of eccentrics, left-overs from a Thirties' passion for camping butt-naked in the great outdoors, humiliated by decades of sniggering and parodied by endless Carry On comedies, seems to be winning the argument.

Once the greatest shock on a beach was knotted handkerchiefs and rolled- up trousers. Today, some feel over-dressed in a skimpy thong. Lobster breasts, sore nipples, sagging bellies and jelly-fish figures are an integral part of seaside scenery. And thousands of Britons secretively bare all in quiet coves abroad or on the dozens of British beaches where a blind eye is turned to nudity (it's officially sanctioned on only a handful).

The great British exposure is not confined to beaches. Italians and French act with some reservation in public parks. Not the Brits, who have a kamikaze attitude to summer and can't get their kit off fast enough. "Something strange happens to the English when the sun comes out," says Peter Collett, a psychologist at Oxford University. "Suddenly, they emerge from their dark holes. There is a celebration, an overcompensation for being encased in clothes the rest of the time."

"Men," says Lisa Armstrong,Vogue's fashion features director, "are the worst. I can't stand it when they show off their vile beer guts, when they take off their shirts in a public place. It's so grim to wade through acres of flesh. They drive around with sweaty, hairy torsos. I know I'm going to sound like a walking Debrett's, but standards are slipping." People are, indeed, wearing less and less. Midriffs are bare, belly-buttons pierced, tights discarded and skirts shortened, on, according to Armstrong, the most inappropriate bodies.

In South Hants Sun Club, the naturists are unfazed that social convention seems to be moving in their direction. Roy, 67, army veteran, proudly wears his Royal British Legion cap - adorned with the badges of nudist beaches he has visited around the world - and, frankly, nothing else above the ankles. He and his wife, Betty, 61, have been stripping off for 40 years. "We just like the freedom of not having to wear clothes. It's a relaxed way of life. None of us are perfect - with naturism you take people as they come, warts and all."

He heads for the bar. It could be any suburban pub, with pool table, juke box and regulars lined up on stools at the counter. Except that no one is wearing a stitch except for the barman pulling pints.

This may not be the Garden of Eden, but to guests, it's heaven. With a nipple count that exceeds a month of Sun editions, it is a temple to the body in all its unclothed manifestations. And who, choked all year by a tie, strait-jacketed by a suit, trussed up by the paraphernalia of modern respectability, would not admit a secret desire to let it all hang out? Here, for a week, maybe two, you can leave your Y-fronts and knickers at reception and pick them up on your way out.

What's striking is that, after half an hour, I almost ceased to notice anything odd. I ceased to fret about averting my gaze. As for my own loins becoming supercharged, I remained unstirred. The rules aimed at checking the passions are strict - no dancing naked, only couples and families allowed within the perimeter fence guarding nakedness.

There was, of course, the bizarre sight of white wobbly bodies playing Petanque on a pebble pitch - fine as long as you don't have to bend down. And naturist volleyball makes its Olympic equivalent look tame. But a nudist camp is surprisingly ordinary: quiz night on Wednesdays, Elvis impressionist on Thursdays. It's not about the body beautiful, but about accepting people as they are. "To show one's body without shame," says its motto, "means not only to take one's flaws for granted, but also to tolerate other people's flaws."

Naturist clubs - there are about 300 in Britain with a 40,000 membership that has doubled in 10 years - welcome women who have had mastectomies. Deformity does not arouse attention. "Not wearing clothes is a great leveller. No one dresses up to impress others," says Nick, 37, normally a besuited manager for a privatised utility company. "I have never locked our caravan, whereas I would if it was on a textile camp site. And I know the children are safe because everyone has been vetted and shares a common philosophy. You can't say that about a lot of camps where people are clothed."

But fashion people are predictably hostile to us shedding all. "Too much rides on keeping clothes," says Jasper Conran, the designer. "The whole of the high street rides on it. Governments would topple. The clothing industry is the fourth biggest in the country. We are naturally a covered- up nation, both mentally and physically. The ancient Greeks lived in Greece. We live in Scunthorpe, Edinburgh and Manchester."

Such practical reasons are probably not the only ones why we will stick with clothes. We simply don't like ourselves enough without them. "It's lovely to see toned bodies with cropped tops," says Vogue's Lisa Armstrong. " But anyone who is over 20 and not in good nick should be thinking of enhancing their body, by covering parts of it, not exposing the flesh. Otherwise it's cruel to everyone else. I find it bizarre what people wear. Do they look in the mirror and see Christy Turlington?"

Yet for all the fashion industry's hatred of ugly exposure, a revolution is perhaps beginning, most notably in the working classes. This social group is far less physically self-critical than the more body-aware middle classes, many of whom, like Mr Bean, still get their knickers in a twist on the beach as they struggle with the bath towel.

Many working-class men, having pioneered the builder's cleavage, rip off their shirts in public at a moment's notice. Indeed a great class divider is between those who take too much off in the wrong place and those who "get it right". You won't find middle-class men wearing cut- off denim hipsters, exposing thighs and great tanned beer bellies. Oh no. When they turn up at Sainsbury's, it's in long shorts, displaying only the lower legs, the last bits to show serious deterioration, and ensuring that the stomach is well tucked in. Not for them skimpy trunks or thongs on the beach. Bermudas are de rigueur.

Many of the middle classes would, no doubt, put this difference in behaviour down to the incorrigible bad taste of the lumpen proletariat. Peter Collett from Oxford University suggests that popular exhibitionism and shamelessness are rooted in rural life, in ancestors less bothered than the urban middle classes about clothing etiquette (outdoor swimming was generally nude until the Victorian period).

Whatever the reason, most of us, however, are still a long way from the naturist ideal of accepting everyone as they come.The message remains, if you don't measure up but you want to dress down radically, then head for your local nudist camp.