Bluff, Buff and Not Covered Enough: A History of Swimwear

Man swimming in board shorts
Image credit: Seth Doyle on Unsplash

Call them what you like: trunks, costumes, swimmers, board shorts, bathing- or swimsuits; few pieces of clothing have come as far in the last century as swimwear has. 

In fact, the idea of men wearing anything at all while swimming is a relatively new one. Go back any further than 160 years or so and anyone looking to go bathing would do so in the buff. It was only around the 1860s that swimwear for private use began to catch on, but men flouting public decency would swim naked in Hyde Park as late as 1906. 

Considering that we’ve been wearing linen for about 10 000 years, the comparatively glacial advent of any kind of swimwear might seem odd indeed. But, prior to the last century, so would the idea of swimming. Unless your life depended on it, swimming was widely seen as unorthodox, if not downright zany. 

People in vintage swimwear
Image credit: Library of Congress on Unsplash

And, looking at early swimming garments, you can’t blame anyone for thinking you were off your rocker for taking a dip. We’re talking full-body knitted suits made of wool that would absorb several kilograms of water when wet. Set foot near a body of water and you would indeed have to swim just to save your life.

Vintage men diving into water
Tullio Saba / Public domain

Questions of styling and fabric innovation notwithstanding, much of this impracticality came down to squeamishness around public nudity. In 1917, the American Association of Park Superintendents’ ‘Bathing Suit Regulations’ defined what was considered appropriate for men’s beachwear at the time. They insisted that some form of skirting cover the trunks, that said trunks be cut no more than 10 centimetres (4 inches) above the knee, and that flesh-coloured garments were a definite no go.

Vintage man measuring length of women's swimwear
Image credit: Library of Congress on Unsplash

The male one-piece remained firmly in place until the 1930s. There were some innovations along the way: Dunlop developed a latex-based elastic yarn called Lastex, plunging armholes were introduced, and even the ‘men’s topper’ — a bathing suit with a zip-off vest-like top — came and went. 

When topless trunks did begin to catch on, however, it was partly down to suntans becoming fashionable in the 1930s. That and Tarzan, of all things. That’s right, the person we’re most indebted to for chests now being bared is none other than fiction’s most famous breast-beater. Specifically, it was thanks to Johnny Weissmuller, who won a seven-year contract with MGM to play Tarzan in 1932. Before Weissmuler wowed the world as the King of the Jungle, he was an olympic swimmer and so-called ‘Aquadonnis’ hired in 1929 by the French swimwear company BVD as a model and adviser. When Tarzan later hit it big, so did his preferred style of bare-chested swimming trunks. 

Vintage men carrying surfboards
Tullio Saba / Public domain

The next big thing in bathing suits arrived with the advent of surf culture in the 1950s. The pop phenomenon comprised surf songs, surf movies, surf fashions, and even the occasional bit of actual surfing, with Makaka (or board shorts) from Hawaii riding the wave to become the first recognizably modern swimwear for men. Equal parts decent, functional, and stylish, it’s no surprise that they continue to be the standard choice for most pool- or beachside men looking to hang ten or just hang out.

Vintage man water skiing
Tullio Saba / Public domain

That’s not to say there haven’t been many skimpier options along the way. In the 1970s, Rudi Gernreigh introduced the first thong for men and, somewhat ironically given aforementioned concerns about modesty, many early swimsuits were form-fitting enough to leave very little to the imagination. Then, of course, there’s the Speedo, familiar to anyone who has had the misfortune of visiting a public pool or encountering a dad on vacation. Peter Travis created the infamous Speedo design for the Australian company of the same name in 1960. Shortly afterwards — the families of vacationing dads might feel justly so — the first man to wear one on Sidney’s Bondi Beach was promptly arrested. 

For the last year or so the only wear mine has gotten has been in my garden where I’ve tried to soak up some Vitamin D while also hiding my pale gams from my neighbours (which is no small feat when you live in central Edinburgh). But with the promise of summer shortly around the corner, I’m ready to answer summer’s rallying call: ‘Sky’s out, thighs out!’

* In writing this article, I am particularly indebted to Josh Sims’ excellent entries on swimwear in The Details: Iconic Men’s Accessories and Icons of Women’s Style.

** This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy something using them, we get a small percentage of the sale at no cost to you. More info at our affiliate policy.