his-tory of swimwear / P.1

Men's swimwear fashion history

Hello everyone! Let me start by saying that our brand-new swimwear collection, RetroWaves, has been a summer hit thanks to your love and support! Stay tuned as the photo campaign for RetroWaves has been just released and more material will follow soon! Embracing so warmly this Ecce Homo’s bold entrepreneurial endeavor is really moving for us and fill us with hope and inspiration to continue designing, manufacturing, and retailing body-positive, non-binary, and eco-conscious underwear and swimwear! Back to the business at hand, taking our cue from the History of Underwear blog series, we decided to launch a new one on the history of swimwear this time which seems only fitting since our little queer brand has recently expanded into the swimwear market, as you are already well aware of. Two really filling articles, one on men’s and one on women’s swimwear fashion, will be part of this Ecce Homo blog series for you to savor as we will trace back the history of summer’s most beloved attire! Our starting point will be the 19th century all the way till the 00s trying to cover all the decades in-between and complement the text with rich visual material.

But before going any further, a caveat is much needed to set the record ‘straight’! Across this article and the following one on women’s swimwear, one will find a series of archival photos, most of them advertisements or artistic depictions of swimwear that share at least two characteristics: firstly, all of them are part of either European or North-American history, and secondly, all of them are highly gendered in terms of a gender binary. Having said that, two comments are in order respectively. What follows is in no way an exhaustive genealogy of these pieces of clothing we have come to call swimsuits, but rather a very limited one both in its geographical and chronological span. In addition, as you might know, Ecce Homo as a queer slow-fashion and body-positive underwear brand is committed to a non-binary or gender-less fashion and we have gone to great lengths to deconstruct this strict gender binary at the heart of hetero-patriarchy and to lend visibility to as many as possible body types engaging in an intersectional queer-feminist approach. But, the history of swimwear is the history of gender itself, so sometimes we are obliged to speak in gendered terms if we want to be historically accurate. Having said that, let’s start with the men’s swimwear fashion history!

Perhaps until the 19th century, bathing was an all-naked activity with few exceptions such as the Japanese fundoshi, a loincloth-like type of swimsuit. Interestingly enough, this seems to be the case even when it comes to the morally upright and body-negative Victorian England where naked swimming was a generally accepted practice. However, by 1860 bathing in nude was banned for the male population and caleçons, a type of drawers came into picture in order to defend the moral integrity of the British swimmers. This by no means was a rule with no exceptions since there are historical evidence that testifies that even in 1906 the famous Hyde Park of London was a ‘nudist’ spot for male Londoners. Let’s not also forget that swimming -let alone sunbathing- wasn’t considered back then to be the leisure activity that is today, and men mostly engaged in it as a sport or for practical reasons and only in the presence of other persons of the same gender. However, the ban on naked swimming and the rise of bathing suit gave birth to mixed-sex bathing, that is men and women wouldn’t have to swim separately anymore! 

At the same time, swimsuits got more and more gender-marked with male swimwear looking stricter and more linear, while female bathing suits looking curvier and more decorated following the well-know gendered beauty standards that still prevail in the apparel market. Also, these first designs tended to look like the undergarments of the period and were mostly made of wool which was preferred over cotton for its moisture-wicking properties. We should also keep in mind that this was the era of industrial revolution and the first large-scale swimwear manufacturing soon followed suit. This was the USA-based Bradley Knitting Company from Delavan, Wisconsin, but it was the Jantzen Company, formerly known as the Portland Knitting Company, that introduced a number of innovations in the swimwear market, such as more lightweight swimming suits. This new booming market across the Atlantic had to thank the Bathing Suit Regulation of the time which imposed a rule of ‘prudence’ to the swimmers further reflected on the designs of the tank suits of this period that offered a good coverage down to the elbow and below the knees. Regarding the colors, solid dark ones were in fashion as well as navy stripes.

The 1920s saw the relaxing of these strict designing standards as we enter the era of mass production that accompanied the rise of more athletic swimsuits for men allowing a wider range of movement and offering less body coverage. These swimsuits came in bright colors and with stripes, as in the case of the ‘California Style Swimsuit’, with orange being a popular choice. In the middle of the decade, the two-piece swimsuit came to prominence with scoop necks and belts being characteristic of the period. At the turn of the decade, the so-called ‘speed suit’, a more athletic and sexier look, was designed meant to dominate the following decade with its trademark ‘crab back’ that replaced the fully covered back of the traditional swimwear with cutouts and intricate patterns. This iconic piece looked like a one-piece bathing suit with short trunks and a T-shirt-like top. Swim caps in bright colors made of rubber were also a thing of this time for men in either Aviator or Submariner style.

The 1930s certainly contributed to this new trend with the fabric technology revolution they saw as the latex and nylon, two man-made synthetic fabrics, were invented and introduced as an option for clothing substituting this way rubber that was occasionally used until then. Thanks to its extreme stretchability, light-weightiness, moisture-wicking properties, latex soon dominated the swimwear market inspiring a more naked-like figure that hugged the body with a more naturally fitting waist and trunks. However, it wasn’t until 1937 that men were allowed to bath bare-chested by the law! A naked torso was still heavily criticized as immodest in some case, but soon after this change of social attitudes, the boxer-like swimsuit has become the men’s standard option! Interestingly enough, they were also the male nipples that were body-policed at the beginning, but somewhere along the way in the name of athleticism with all its masculinist connotations men have gained the privilege of the bare chest and free nipples. 

In the meantime, it was exactly during this time that having a tan as a marker of wealth became fashionable as it signified that one has enough money to take a vacation and spend some lazy time on the beach. Also, blue was the color of the decade, and the first beach accessories made their appearance, such as beach shoes and robes! This was the decade of two-part swimsuits zipped or buttoned in such a way that they were giving the impression that this was a one-piece bathing suit. The horizontal stripes were in fashion, but the color palette seemed to be solid. Shorts became shorter but they remained high-waisted along with button fly and a discreet coin pocket. Polo shirts and flannel trousers were the casual ‘resort’ option that accompanied a swimwear look at the time.

The 1940s, the war-time years, saw the apotheosis of a new male body type, a new ideal of male beauty, focusing on physical strength and muscle-gaining. As a result, the swimsuits of the period got shorter and more athletic than ever before accentuating the virility and physique of the wearer. At the same time, the morals of the time -at least in Europe- became less strict in terms of nudity having as a result men going to the beach only with a pair of swim briefs on without tops! Soon, swimwear brands embraced this new development in their catalogs and ended up retailing swim brief as standalones. What a development!  Blues and greens were the colors of the decade, while rayon-latex dominated and slowly pushed out of use the wool and the cotton. And yes, there was one particular style of male swimsuit that was extremely gay during this period, the ‘half-skirt trunks’, which were a really short skirt with a pair of briefs sewn underneath on the waist band. The whole point was to draw the attention on the brief underneath and the contrast of colors between the skirt and the briefs helped this way. As you might guess, these ‘trunks’ were a hit among the members of the gay community! Towards the end of the decade, mid-thigh and high-waisted swim trunks gained popularity, while tropical and nautical prints made things a bit more interesting.

Thankfully, the 1950s struck back making men’s swimwear a bit queerer by introducing even more flamboyant designs, colorful prints and fanciful details. It was around this time that zippers were first used in swimwear and belts were replaced for good by elastic waistbands. Swim boxers and trunks were the two best-selling items of the time, while they became a bit lengthier than the previous decade in order to double serve as ‘normal’ outwear with a casual top. It was also the decade of prints, such as tropical and novelty, and loud Caribbean colors! Matching cabana shirts were also sold as a top for men to create a casual yet fashionable resort look leaving flannel suits behind. 

The 1960s was dominated by an Australian brand which became household name, the Speedo, with its head designer, Peter Travis, revolutionize men’s swimwear with his extremely short swimming trunks we are well acquainted with until today. In the conservative USA of the time, it was the gays who mostly dared to wear this type of revealing trunks! The 1960s were also the decade of space mania as space exploration took off during these Cold War years resulting in what has become known as ‘space age fabrics’ in psychedelic colors! In addition, knitted shorts was a major trend for the boldest of men, a new extremely short length was introduced called ‘Nassau length’, and ‘surfer jams’, a type of California-inspired shorts with loose legs, seemed to be the ancestor of ‘board shorts’ to be discussed in a minute. Ankle-length pools or beach pants suitable mostly for playing beach volley or relaxing were popular among a younger demographic, while cabana jackets were a must-have piece. Apart from these developments, the 60s also saw the comeback of many stylistic elements of previous decades.

The following two decades seemed to establish already present designs and set the tone for the years to come, moving back and forth between long and baggy boxers and tight trunks. The 1970s in particular were the decade of the counter-culture movement introducing bright colors and cuts in men’s swimwear influenced by the hippie’s aesthetic. Bold designs, such as thongs and bikinis for men, made their appearance without becoming mainstream, while polyester was the material of the decade. The so-called ‘sports shorts’ with the characteristic wide stripes on the side were marketed as shorts for athletes and joggers. The other must-have item of the decade was the fixed waistband shorts, while the size of pockets played a role in making shorts more stylish imitating the cargo look.

On the other hand, it should be noted that patterns and colors have never ceased evolving, while elastane or spandex swimwear gave a new push to the 1980s trend of muscle worship and fitness obsession. While the 80s could be considered as an extension of the 70s iconic looks, color-blocking in stripes was a new addition. The niche Speedo brief of the previous decades, initially worn almost exclusively by athletes and gays, went mainstream at some point during the 80s along with the rise of gym culture. Prints were also a huge deal, especially tropical and pop art ones, like cartoons. In the 1990s, it was Calvin Klein once again who influenced the market by promoting his famous boxer designs as an athleisure option of men. On the other hand, the surfing mania took the 1990s by storm resulting in the rise of loosely fitting 'surfboard shorts', while ‘harem pants’ were also an option for beach or pool pants. This was the decade of the macho jock culture and visible branding.

The 2000s were for the most part uneventful fashion-wise with the notable exception of Brazilian fashion wave and the famous Sunga Suit that was trending during these years. The 00s was all about showing off one’s sixpack and bottom so swimwear was designed to accentuate this particular body feature and well-cut swimsuit were top-selling dethroning the baggy surfboard shorts. The board shorts became even shorter monopolizing the market, while the first Fastskin Suits by Speedo providing lesser drag for better watersport performances became a thing! However, in 2009, World Aquatics, formerly known as FINA, the international federation recognized by the International Olympic Committee for administering international competitions in water sports, banned non-textile (non-woven) swimsuits in competitive events from 2010, including performance enhancing swimsuits, such as the Fastskin Suit. In terms of colors, prints went out of fashion and single colors were preferred.

As we speak, men’s swimwear global market keeps expanding at a fast rate poised to grow by $1665.94 mn during 2023-2027, while American Eagle Outfitters Inc, Arena Spa, CHANEL Ltd., Decathlon SA, DICKS Sporting Goods Inc., Frescobol Carioca, Hennes and Mauritz AB, Hermes International SA, and others are identified as the key players in this market. A driving force in the future is estimated to be the growing demand for long-sleeve swimsuits for men and the emergence of new fabric technologies, such performance enhancing, thermal insulating or water-resistant materials. Currently, the increased interest of men in swimming and various watersports, such as water skiing, and the rising trend of transitional shorts that are versatile seem to contribute to the boosting of the market. Men seem to demand stylish and comfortable swimwear without sacrificing the one for the other.

Based on information and visual archival material from: