For the most part of human history, bathing has always been done…naked. Before the 19th century, there were only few cultures, such as the Japanese who used a loincloth (fundoshi), that used a specific garment by men to swim or bath. Interestingly, even the then rather uptight English society accepted naked bathing in general. Only few towns such as Bath in England had swimwear regulations asking men to wear “drawers and a waistcoat” but the baths were also public places. In small towns, men usually bathed au naturel on one end of the beach or river and the ladies would enter the water in specially created bathing cars that blocked the views with umbrellas from prying eyes. The swimsuit as we know it today had only just seen the light of day by 1869, when Frédéric Bazille painted Scène d’été. It is remarkable how very similar these early items of men’s swimwear were to modern day swim trunks – even the leopard and zebra patterns were around back then!
Nevertheless, right into the Edwardian period not every bather would wear one. In fact, up until 1906 men were bathing completely naked in the morning in Hyde Park, London. Right around that time, seaside authorities insisted on bath costumes for men, which paved the way for mixed sex bathing. Interestingly, Oxford University maintained a special place called Parsons’ Pleasure dedicated to nude bathing for men until 1991!
With bathing regulations increasing the demand for swimsuits, the Bradley Knitting Company from Delavan, Wisconsin became was the first large-scale producer of swimsuits in the US (they survived until 1940). By 1910, the Oregon-based Portland Knitting Company – renamed to Jantzen in 1916 – entered the market, and launched a number of industry firsts such as rib-stitch bathing costumes, or “light weight” bathing suits.
By 1912, Bentz Knitting Mills (Catalina) added swimwear to their product range and in the following years, the world demand for swimsuits increased with each passing year.
The first swimsuits were made out knitted wool because it could be stretched and absorbed less water than cotton. Soon thereafter, rubber was occasionally used until Nylon entered the commercial market in 1938.
Throughout the 1910’s, most men wore the tank suits in the water. Mostly sold in solid colors such as black or navy, this bathing costume reached all the way down to the elbow and the knees. In the 1920’s the sleeves disappeared and the armholes were cut more generously. Overall, the one piece suit and swimsuit separates in cross stripes and solid colors both had about 50% of the market share.
While pale skin used to be a symbol of the upper class, a tan had become fashionable by the 1930’sas an indication of the ability to enjoy leisurely, and often expensive, sporting pursuits. Consequently, the shirt part of the swimsuit was first reduced in size before it vanished completely, resulting in simple swim trunks or shorts. Blue was the preferred color for swim trunks but bold stripes were likewise popular. The one piece suit was worn less and less, making room for other accessories such as matching beach shoes, like espadrilles, and beach robes.
Stars like Fred Perry – here with Marlene Dietrich – helped to popularize the new reduced swim trunk shape.
The interwar years and the resulting fabric shortages held men’s swimwear styles to shorter lengths. Colors included rich green, browns, oranges, as well as blue and black.
The 1950’s brought various changes to the swimwear industry. The growing middle class demanded more swimsuits and the introduction of miracle fibers such as Lycra, Crepe and Drilon increased comfort, accelerated drying times and prevented wrinkles in men’s swimwear. On top of that, zippers were used in swim trunks and patterns as well as style choices increased considerably.
In general, swim trunks were shorter than ever in 1960 and the landing on the moon had its impact on the fabric choices in swimwear. So-called “space age fabrics” were available bright and psychedelic color palettes. Manufacturers even offered swimwear in baby corduroy, terry cloth and denim. Some of the swimwear featured belts and looked remarkably similar to the 1930’s. In 1960, the Australian swimwear brand Speedo introduced the famous men’s swimming briefs, which were designed by Peter Travis. They were so successful that this very kind of swimming brief is referred to asSpeedo in the US.
The seventies was the decade of the hippies and it certainly rubbed off on men’s swimwear designs. In a nutshell, colors were bright, cuts exotic and altogether there was little that did not exist in some form or another. Even the tank suit had a short revival, while others wore tanga thongs in elastane.
The 1980s were uneventful in terms of swimsuit fashion. Neoprene was sometimes used for swimwear but overall trunks remained the #1 swim suit until the 1990’s, when loosely fitting board shorts entered the market.
Especially in the US, long and loosely fitting board shorts became the preferred swimsuit for men.
In the the beginning of the 21st century, some men favored the Brazilian sunga swim briefs, which were very short. Others kept wearing trunks, while the majority in the U.S. still prefers the board shorts, even though the shorts became trimmer and shorter than in the nineties.
Competitive swimmers opted for full body fastskin suits that enabled them to swim world record times. Interestingly, they were very similar to the original tank suits. Due to their performance enhancing properties, they are no longer allowed for swim races and hence disappeared.