Thursday, May 15, 2014

Bikinis Past And Present

When, in 1959, the mayor of Benidorm decided to take the establishment on, he probably couldn't have realised what he was unleashing. Or probably he could. What mayor Pedro Zaragoza did was to permit the wearing of bikinis. He was denounced by the Guardia Civil, threatened with excommunication by the Archbishop of Valencia, sought an audience with General Franco and, no doubt to everyone's surprise, opposition to the bikini was dropped.

So, Benidorm was where the bikini revolution started, but the decision to allow bikinis didn't mean that Spanish beaches were suddenly all exposed to similar quantities of additional bare female flesh as Benidorm's was. Things tended to vary from resort to resort, as was the case in Mallorca. There remained the thorny issue of the Guardia taking exception, so the Spanish tourism ministry had to assure foreign tour operators that, though there was no general law permitting the bikini, the boys in green would not be going around hassling female tourists in a two-piece.

The most influential voice in bringing about greater liberalism and thus the generally accepted practice of bikini-wearing was Manuel Fraga, who was made minister of tourism and information in 1962. This dual portfolio made some sense. Though the masses were starting to hover in the skies over Mallorca and the Costa Brava, Spain's reputation was hardly terribly positive. A key aspect of Fraga's information remit was one that dovetailed with tourism. It was information in the propaganda sense of information. Mallorca and the Costas were to benefit from a more benevolent, benign and Benidorm-liberalised image, and one of the images, to the horror of the Catholic conservative class, was the bikini.

Part of Fraga's propaganda was the use of the film industry. This wasn't entirely novel as the regime was already using films to portray Spain in a better light ("El Cid" was an example). Fraga had less grand notions. There was to be no epic but rather a series of films which featured the two elements of the new tourism industry - sun and beach. One of these films was released in 1962. It starred Elke Sommer. Its title was "Bahia de Palma". It was a romantic comedy in which Sommer played Olga, an heiress socialite with a vicious tongue, opposite Arturo Fernández, a concert pianist who had lost the will to play on account of heart break.

The film was apparently a success. Eager Spanish cinema-goers were repeat visitors to the movie theatres. In Germany - Sommer was/is German - the film was also a success but under a different title, "Spiel und Leidenschaft" (play and passion). Seemingly, it never made it to British cinema screens, and so the British film fan could not enjoy the sight which made "Bahia de Palma" a sensation: Elke Sommer in a bikini.

The title was, though, misleading in that not all location shots were in Palma Bay. Andraitx, Formentor, Santa Ponsa and Valldemossa all featured as well, but these additional locations only helped to do what the film was really intended to do, which was to promote Mallorca. By allowing the odd shot of a bikini, the regime's censors, no doubt advised by Fraga, permitted a promotional coup two times over: one of showing off Mallorca and its beaches and the other of showing what a tolerant and liberal place Spain was after all.

Despite its apparent success in Spain and in Germany, it is not a film that has gone down in the annals of cinema history as having been of any great merit. But it does find a place in that history because of the landmark bikini. It may have been propaganda but it was pragmatic propaganda. Fraga knew the value of greater liberalism and understood that foreign values were different to those of the sexually repressed Spain of that time. Whether the establishment liked it or not, and most didn't, for Spain to reap the full benefits of tourism, it had to lighten up.

This was all fifty-two years ago. An awful lot of bare flesh has since passed under the tourism bridgehead formed by Elke Sommer, but the amount of bare flesh now on show is, so we are led to believe, out of control, hence the "bikini law".

Fraga knew a thing or two about how to handle the media. He was from a different time, but in some ways it might be good were he still around. He might just get the message across correctly. I was asked the other day about the restrictions on wearing bikinis in Mallorca. There are none, only those which Palma are introducing, and which even there are not intended to stop bikini-wearing in the immediate vicinity of the beaches. Somewhere the message is going wrong, and it is, moreover, a message which seems peculiarly of the past. I wonder what Elke Sommer thinks. Bahia de Palma, bikinis verboten.

* Photo: Elke Sommer, "Bahia de Palma".

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