Waxing Brazilian about Twenties Beach Culture


Labor Day has come and gone.  For many the holiday marks a transition to autumn regardless of the thermometer’s temperature reading.  Time to breathe a sigh of relief and put away the swimsuit until next summer season. 

On the other side of the equator, however, spring is just arriving.  While North Americans sweat in their fall fashions, others frolic on some of the world’s best-known beaches – Ipanema and Copacabana – in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

Yet the famous Brazilian beach culture is a relatively recent phenomenon that came about around the same time beach culture was emerging elsewhere.  People went to the beach and “bathed” during the Victorian era, but it was not until the 1920s that the activity truly took off in the US and Brazil.  Fashionable Americans traveled the globe cultivating their tans and leading a leisurely lifestyle as so beautifully depicted in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934). 

In twenties Brazil, Rio de Janeiro was the nation’s capital and it was bustling with excitement as new technologies changed people’s lives.  Among the wealthy, the automobile allowed one quickly and easily to reach the zona sul [south zone] beaches, cinemas, and clubs.  A tunnel completed in 1892 connected the Copacabana neighborhood with Rio’s city center.  In just a few decades Copacabana and the other zona sul neighborhoods would become among the most desirable places to live in Rio.

In addition to increased mobility thanks to the automobile and improved thoroughfares, Brazilian lifestyle magazines also contributed to a new sense of modernity and the beach culture associated with it.  One popular magazine, Fon-fon, even took its name from the onomatopoeia sound for a car horn honking.

To get a sense of the emergent Brazilian beach culture, it is useful to compare the April 4, 1925, edition of Fon-fon with the April 1, 1925, edition of US Vogue.  The two publications provide a lens into the past on how popular media characterized life for young, rich women of their respective nations.

In the 1920s Vogue was a widely available highbrow women’s fashion and lifestyle magazine.  Like much in the mainstream media, Vogue privileged whiteness, specifically of the WASP sort.  For example, its twenties coverage of beachgoers focuses exclusively on white beachgoers.  In early April 1925, while snow still covered the ground in some parts of the country, a person could thumb through the pages of the April 1, 1925, issue and learn how and where the “smart set” spent their winters and early springs.  On page 72 of the magazine a “social map” with an anonymously written essay by “him” describes for readers specific places where one ought to be seen.  The anonymous writer does make clear that such destinations are not for ordinary people nor should they be.  Only the intrepid and those with capital to invest will get rich as the author claims investors of Florida real estate were becoming.

On pages 64-67 an entire section is devoted to the “Life, Letters, and Fashions from Palm Beach,” which directly follows a two-page spread on the fashions of Saint Moritz and the Riviera.  In contrast to the description of dinner parties by “him” that most readers will never attend, ordinary women can see illustrations of the latest fashions to be worn by the smart set in spring and summer.  Four illustrated pages take the guesswork out of what to wear and what to do if one wishes to be “smart.”  The illustration shown here is taken from the Palm Beach section.  It brilliantly encapsulates desirable modern behavior and dress in the US at the time.  The woman in the foreground and the girl are attired in knit sportswear and hold tennis rackets.  Dress and their “portable category symbols” (Eckert 1989) reinforce their athleticism, choice of leisure activities, and social class.  The group of three stands next to an automobile on a palm tree lined street.  While the adult woman on the right in the trio is more formally dressed, the caption notes that her crepe de chine dress is of the style worn by Mrs. Gurnee Munn, an heiress whose then-current husband was a very wealthy man in his own right.  The illustration sets an aspirational model not only for attire but also for the lifestyle that such an appearance connotes.  It is a forbear to the kind of successful marketing that aligns clothing with upper class American leisure, which Ralph Lauren would expand upon several decades later. 

Other illustrations from the resort wear section feature women dressed in eveningwear and beachwear.  Judging by the illustrations, the smart set stroll along the waterfront, stand beside automobiles, and dance beneath palm trees.  Interestingly there are no photographs but only illustrations in the sections on Palm Beach, Saint Moritz, and the Riviera.  Elsewhere in the magazine, however, there are studio photographs of recently married society women in their bridal gowns. 

Like Vogue, Fon-fon portrays beach culture as the province of the rich and implicitly the white.  Yet beach going as depicted in Fon-fon does not appear to be nearly so exclusive as it does in Vogue.  For example, there do not appear to be any articles about high society in Rio’s beachfront communities.  This may be because Brazil’s beach culture was popularized in the nation’s capital: a busy port and a densely populated city with people from all walks of life.  Palm Beach, by contrast, became a resort destination in the early 20th century when the founder of Standard Oil built luxury hotels there and increased access to the island.  Although the two beach cultures were emerging at the same time, Rio de Janeiro’s opportunities for cross-class comingling were significantly greater. Moreover, the tropical climate provided nearly year round opportunities for spending time at the beach.  

The April 4, 1925, edition of Fon-fon is comparable to other Brazilian lifestyle magazines from the era.  The issue’s cover features an illustration of a bathing suit-clad young woman with cropped hair.  Mountains visible in the background suggest that she sits on a zona sul beach, most likely Copacabana.  While April is springtime in the Northern Hemisphere, it is autumn in Rio de Janeiro, which follows Carnival’s summer excitement.  Zona sul in this context is a leisure destination for the modern Brazilian woman, a place to relax after the summer festivities. 

1925 Vogue is New York-centric, with places such as Palm Beach and the Riviera serving as glamorous destinations for New Yorkers.  By contrast Fon-fon is Rio de Janeiro-centric.  Moreover, travel—domestic or foreign—is not emphasized in Fon-fon as it is in Vogue.  Rather magazine coverage centers on the zona sul lifestyle transforming the neighborhood into a metonym for the entire city (Galli O’Donnell 2011).  Eventually the city itself would become a metonym of Brazil for non-Brazilians.

In the April 1, 1925, Vogue there are no references to Hollywood films even though by this time movie going was a popular leisure activity for the masses.   In twenties Rio de Janeiro, cinemas were being rapidly constructed, especially in the zona sul, and ticket prices were becoming more affordable.  This was a shift from early decades when only the Brazilian elite could afford to go to the movies.  Though people from all walks of life were beginning to engage in some of the same leisure activities, movie going had not lost its caché for Rio elites. 

Unlike Vogue, Fon-fon accords prominent space to Hollywood films, which comprised the majority of movies screened in Brazil (Thompson 1985).  A four-page section called “Os Sete Dias de Fon-fon no Cinema” [Fon-Fon’s Seven Days in the Cinema] provides coverage of recent Hollywood film releases.  At the time Rio de Janeiro was the entry point for imported Hollywood films before being distributed throughout Brazil.  As such, Rio residents would be the first Brazilians to see the latest releases.  On April 4, 1925, Fon-fon features extensive coverage of The Lady (released nationally in the US on February 8, 1925) starring Norma Talmadge.  The article lists cast members’ names, includes multiple film stills, and provides a detailed plot synopsis.  “Os Sete Dias” also includes captioned stills from other recent Hollywood releases, presumably so readers can plan which movies to see over the next seven days.

Also in contrast to Vogue, Fon-fon includes candid photographs of society women at the beach, on the street, and at elegant events.  The women in the photographs would hardly appear out of place on New York streets save for the reverse season nature of their lighter weight clothing.  Such candid photos mark a stark contrast to the posed studio bridal portraits featured in Vogue

Fon-fon candid (April 4, 1925)

Despite the differences, what the two magazines share in common are representations of stylishly dressed, white subjects.  Interestingly, the Brazilian photos give the subjects a greater degree of anonymity while authenticating their presence at fashionable locations.  In so doing Brazilian magazines such as Fon-fon helped to convey for their readers that chic, urban beach culture was achievable for any modern Brazilian woman.

Today people from all classes in the US and Brazil enjoy beach culture though of course there are key ways for signifying status through dress, location, and season.

Works Cited

Eckert.  Penelope.  Jocks and Burnouts: Social Identity in the High School. New York: Teachers College Press, 1989.

Galli O'Donnell, Julia.  “Um Rio Atlântico: Culturas urbanas e estilos da vida na invenção de Copacabana.”  PhD diss., Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brasil, 2011.

Thompson, Kristin.  Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907-1934. London: British Film Institute, 1985.



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