Style / May 2018

The History of Men's Swimwear

From government regulation to surf culture, The Rake takes a closer look at what’s informed the shape of men’s swimwear throughout history.

Robert Redford wears a two-piece bathing suit typical of the 1920s in The Great Gatsby, 1974. Photography by Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

At their modern extreme, a pair of budgie smugglers is barely there. Yet this fact – perfectly encapsulated by the witty Australian slang for skimpy men’s swimwear – barely registers in an era in which the Adonis Complex sees boys barely out of toddlerdom fretting over their physiques. Exposing so much flesh, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon when it comes to being attired for beach or pool. You might well thank Tarzan for that. Close to 90 years ago, a company by the name of BVD hired Olympic swimmer and so-called ‘Aquadonis’ Johnny Weissmuller on a seven-year contract to model its ground-breaking new trunks. Luckily for them, three years later Weissmuller won another contract – with Goldwyn-Meyer – to play the lord of the jungle. Worldwide fame followed.

But not worldwide uptake of the new, more freeing form of swimwear that BVD introduced in 1937, despite this offering more coverage than Weissmuller wore for all that rope swinging. But then, he was playing a relative savage. That the company’s invention fell flat is perhaps hardly surprising when, just a few years earlier, men of good manners were expected to wear a one-piece bathing suit that covered the chest, legs and certainly everything in between. Imagine, if you will, the idea of a man disrobing to reveal something akin to Calabrese 1924 or Coast Society’s totally unshocking swim shorts to a crowd some of whom could remember having to use bathing machines – changing rooms on wheels, pushed into the water, so one could hide one’s modesty directly under the surface.

Much less exposed skin had been the norm for decades – woollen all-in-ones coming in with Victorian prudishness, and doing away with the historic norm of men swimming naked; if they swam at all, that is. Swimming, unless it was to save one’s life, was considered an avant-garde, if not outright wacky pursuit. Even when men did bathe, in their uncomfortably-heavy-when-sodden style, it was strictly in the company of other men. Society even went all out to legally control swimwear – when, during the 1920s, men finally did away with the leg coverings on their swimwear, US regulations still stipulated that what remained could be no higher than four inches above the knee. Ooh-la-la.

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