Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Bikini Revolution

When three years ago the right-wing Instituto de Política Familiar (family policy institute) was seeking a ban on toplessness on Mallorca's beaches, the responses were loud in their condemnation of such prudishness. Among these responses were those which made a connection between the attitudes of the institute and Opus Dei. As is probably well understood, it was members of Opus Dei who were to the fore in guiding the economic policy that was to transform Spain in the 1960s. But as part of the drive towards tourism that formed a key element of this policy, it is most unlikely that committed Catholic fundamentalists, such as Opus Dei members, would have approved of certain manifestations of this tourism. And the bikini was one of them.

In 1960, Brian Hyland had a hit with "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini". At the same time as Hyland was to be heard crackling out of Radio Luxembourg, the then mayor of Benidorm, Pedro Zaragoza, was facing the prospect of being excommunicated from the Catholic Church, having, in 1959, signed a municipal order permitting the wearing of bikinis on the resort's beaches.

Zaragoza's order flew firmly in the face of Francoist Spain's national catholicism. It was the first such order. It caused an uproar. The Guardia Civil attempted to make beachgoers cover up, Zaragoza decided to take on the church, met Franco personally and, remarkably enough perhaps, Zaragoza was spared the fate of excommunication and the bikini was saved.

The bikini has assumed a legendary status in Spanish history. Under national law, a dress code had been established for the seaside. It required men to cover their chests and backs and women to wear skirts. Elements within the church tried to persuade the Franco regime to go so far as to segregate beaches into male and female sections. It was against such attitudes and legislation that the bikini was to cause the fuss that it did and to come to represent something of a "glasnost" moment in moving Spain in a more relaxed direction.

In reality, the regime was more concerned with guarding the morals of the locals than it was with what tourists chose to wear or not wear. And it was how the bikini was dealt with that explains an awful lot about how Mallorca and the Costas Brava and Blanca (the Costa del Sol was comparatively insignificant at the start of the 1960s) accommodated the pioneering mass tourists and about how Spain was in fact governed.

As part of the Stabilisation Plan of 1959, the one that set Spain on the road to the performance of the economic miracle which occurred, a plan for tourism, and one that came with regulatory backing, had been mindful to attempt to spread the tourism load across the country. The plan was never implemented, mainly because it was almost totally ignored. At the start of the 1960s, almost 70% of all accommodation for tourists was on the two Costas and in the Balearics (most of this in Mallorca).  

This disregard for legal measures typified the way in which the Franco regime said or enacted one thing and allowed another to happen. Speculators ruled the coasts of Mallorca rather than legislators, and these speculators were responding to the new demand for sun and beach holidays. In a sense, there was a government within a government that was sanctioning this. Manuel Fraga, the minister of tourism and information and the man widely credited with having overseen the tourism boom, acted more or less as he wanted. Fraga was permissive in all sorts of ways. He was a liberal in Francoist terms, and it was he who not only appreciated that a freer market (brought about by the Stabilisation Plan) should determine where tourism development would occur and how it would occur, he was also the one who rejected puritanical notions that might deter the new tourists. 

The regime, once Zaragoza had forced the issue in Benidorm, abrogated its role in determining beach morality. The commonly held view that everything was controlled by central government at that time couldn't have been further from the truth. It was left to local authorities to do as they saw fit, and usually this meant little or no controls over development and instructions to the police to leave bikini-clad females alone. And this despite the fact that the morality law determining beach attire remained unrepealed.

The bikini did denote something of a revolution, but in fact it was more a case of representing the regime's opportunism. A more gracious word would be flexibility. However one wants to describe it, the bikini provided a watershed moment. The beaches of Mallorca were never to be the same again.

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