“It was not only in Farol that brusque changes were taking place…they were happening at a breakneck pace all over Spain. Roads, radio, the telephone and now the arrival of tourists… were putting an end to the Spain of old. And for those who wanted to see it as it had been, there was not a moment to be lost.” Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’
If Pedro Zaragoza Orts is remembered for the Beni-York skyscraper he is even more famous for the so called ‘War of the Bikini’. In the later years of the 1950s the icon of holiday liberty was rapidly becoming the saucy two piece swimsuit but in staunchly religious Spain, still held in the firm two-handed grip of church and state, this scanty garment was seen as a threat to the very foundation of Catholic society.
According to the official version the swimsuit, that was a little more than a provocative brassiere front with a tiny g-string back, was invented by a French engineer called Louis Réard and the fashion designer Jacques Heim. It was allegedly named after Bikini Atoll, the site of nuclear weapon tests on the reasoning that the burst of excitement it would cause on the beach or at the lido would be like a nuclear explosion. Plenty of fallout and very hot!
And it certainly had this effect in Spain and although occasionally allowable on the sandy beaches, it had to be covered up in all other areas; on the promenades and in the plazas and in the shops and the bars and cafés for fear of causing any offence. In one famous incident, a British tourist, sitting in a bar opposite a beach wearing only a bikini, was told by a Guardia Civil officer that she wasn’t allowed to wear it there. After an argument she hit him, and her strike for social justice cost her a hefty fine of forty thousand pesetas.
Zaragoza needed tourists and tourists wanted the bikini and with more pasty-skinned northern European tourists arriving each year in search of an all over suntan the Mayor knew that the banning of the two piece swimsuit simply couldn’t be sustained or allowed to threaten his ambitious plans for development.
Zaragoza took a gamble and signed a municipal order which permitted the wearing of the bikini in public areas and in this single act he effectively jump started the Spanish tourist industry. Zaragoza said: “People had to feel free to be able to wear what they wanted, within reason, if it helped them to enjoy themselves as they would come back and tell their friends about the place.” In deeply religious Catholic Spain not everyone was so understanding or welcoming of the bikini however and in retaliation the Archbishop of Valencia began the excommunication process against him.
This may not seem such an especially big issue now but to get a better perspective it is important to contextualise it in terms of the time. Spain was in the grip of an ultra-conservative dictatorship and the beaches at Benidorm were still managed in theory according to a decree of 1907 that had segregated the them into specific zones for men and women and where people could only bathe if, in the words of the decree, they were ‘decently dressed’.
Excommunication was a very serious matter in 1959 and his political supporters began to abandon him so one day, the story goes, he got up early and drove for nine hours on a little Vespa scooter to Madrid to lobby Franco himself. The Generalissimo was suitably impressed with his determination and gave him his support, Zaragoza returned to Benidorm and the Church backed down and the approval of the bikini became a defining moment in the history of modern Spain ultimately changing the course of Spanish tourism and causing a social revolution in an austere country groaning under the yoke of the National Catholic regime. Zaragoza went on to become Franco’s Director of Tourism and a Parliamentary Deputy.
Not many people would have described Franco as a liberalising social reformer but not long after this lots of women on holiday in Benidorm dispensed with the bikini bra altogether and brazenly sunbathed topless and Benidorm postcards had pictures of semi-dressed ladies on them to prove it.
One thing I am certain of is that this wouldn’t have made a great deal of difference to my Nan because I am not sure that she ever possessed a swimming costume, never mind a two-piece! She was a bit old-fashioned and the human body in the naked form was only permitted behind closed doors with the curtains closed and preferably after dark. If she ever went in the sea I imagine it would have been in one of those Victorian one piece bathing costumes of the previous century. Grandad too wasn’t one for showing bits of his body normally kept under his bus conductor’s dark blue uniform and didn’t even concede to a pair of shorts, preferring instead to wear his colonial style slacks even during the day. When he came home his impressive suntan stopped at the line of his open neck shirt and his rolled up sleeves.
For people who had never been abroad before Benidorm must have been an exciting place in the early 1960s. Palm fringed boulevards, Sangria by the jug full and, unrestrained by optics, generous measures of whiskey and gin, rum and vodka. Eating outside at a pavement café and ordering drinks and not paying for them until leaving and scattering unfamiliar coins on the table as a tip for the waiter. There was permanent sunshine, a delightful warm sea and unfamiliar food, although actually I seem to doubt that they would be introduced to traditional Spanish food on these holidays because to be fair anything remotely ethnic may have come as shock because like most English people they weren’t really ready for tortilla and gazpacho, tapas or paella. They certainly didn’t return home to experiment with any new Iberian gastronomic ideas and I suspect they probably kept as close as they could to food they were familiar with.
Benidorm is a fascinating place, often unfairly maligned or sneered at but my grandparents liked it and I have been there myself in 1977 for a fortnight’s holiday and then again on a day trip in 2008 just out of curiosity. It has grown into a mature and unique high rise resort with blue flag beaches and an ambition to achieve UNESCO World Heritage Status and I hope it achieves it.