In 1896, swimming became an official sport of the first modern Olympics, even though the swimwear of that era seemed designed to slow swimmers down. Common woolen swimsuits, or bathing costumes, as they were called, were thick and heavy, making it difficult to maneuver in the water. At the time, both men and women were legally required to be fully covered from neck to knees when on a public beach. White or skin-colored fabrics were also forbidden because they revealed too much of the human anatomy.

In 1917, the American Association of Park Superintendents published its official “Bathing Suit Regulations," which required men’s suits to have a skirt that covered the shorts. For women of the era, stockings were still a customary part of the female bathing suit. These strict rules began changing in the 1920s, as evolving social norms allowed men and women to spend time together near the water, and show a bit more flesh, thus propelling swimming as a leisure activity. The sport’s physical requirements provided the perfect justification for slimmer bathing suits made from lighter materials.

Actor and Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller’s 1929 portrayal of "Tarzan," for which he wore only a loincloth, made it more acceptable for men to swim shirtless, although it was still illegal in public places. During the '20s, men's swimsuits of jersey, silk, and rayon (advertised as “artificial silk”) first entered the marketplace, while major companies like Jantzen got their start in swimwear.

Jantzen began as a small knitwear producer in Portland, Oregon, but after a special design for rowing trunks became a hit, the brand started experimenting with swimwear. The company's first wool bathing suits for men were bulky and uncomfortable, weighing up to nine pounds when wet. However, the company soon pioneered a stitch that created a body-hugging fit that didn't sag when wet, and in 1927, Jantzen adopted the advertising slogan, “The suit that changed bathing to swimming.”

Around the same time, the Australian brand Speedo began dabbling in athletic swimwear. Company founder, Alexander MacRae, was originally in the hosiery business, providing socks for the Australian military, but he added his first line of swimsuits in 1927, which included a controversial women’s “racer-back” costume. The following year, a staff marketing contest yielded the slogan “Speed in your Speedos,” and the name stuck.

Unfortunately, the company’s revealing swimwear was still cause for alarm, and when swimmer Clare Dennis wore her shoulderless Speedo swimsuit to the 1932 Olympics, she was nearly disqualified for showing too much skin. In 1936, the Australian men’s team also caused an uproar when they competed in their bare-chested Speedo swimming shorts.

To satisfy the censors and flesh-demanding public, swimwear companies began selling the “Men's Topper” during the 1930s, a convertible swimsuit whose top could be removed with a zipper. Finally, in 1937, American men won the right to go topless in public, thanks to vigorous campaigning by the “no-shirt” movement...

Though stretchy Nylon and Lastex materials joined the swimwear arena during the 1930s, men’s trunks were often belted for a more secure fit. The introduction of Lycra, a version of elastic Spandex, in the late 1950s, made swim trunks even more flexible during the 1960s and '70s.

Around the same time, as surf culture hit its stride, boys wanted to be seen in longer surf trunks or boardshorts, originally worn to protect the skin from getting roughed up against a wax-coated surfboard. These trunks were often made of quick-drying polyester or nylon with a rigid waistband that tied in front, so a wave couldn’t whisk them away. The sporty boardshort style has since become standard among men's swimwear makers, with shorter trunks projecting a classic, vintage vibe.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Black Tie Guide

The Black Tie Guide

Peter Marshall became an authority on formalwear out of necessity — he needed a tux to wear on the maiden transat… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Tommy Hilfiger Swim Trunks Sailing Gear Size Large Vintage 1970s Speedo Men's Usa Nylon Cosmic Tye Dye Bikini Briefs Swimsuit - 36Vintage Rare Mens Lilly Pulitzer Palm Beach Springs Swim Trunks Shorts NosMen's Vintage 70s-80s Authentic Chanel Pink Swim Shorts Men's Nwt Harley-davidson Vintage Board Shorts/swim Trunks.. Size 34 ...greatVintage Op Ocean Pacific 80's Corduroy Cord Surf Shorts Teal Green Mens 38Men's Speedo Brand Swim Brief - Size 32 - Blue Racer Brief - Vintage StyleMens Size 34 ~ Robert Bruce The Grubb ~ Bathing Suit Hippie Shorts Vintage New Vtg 1980s Hobie Board Shorts White W Rainbow Stripe Swim Trunks Suit 80s Mens 36Men's Vintage Courtney & Brooks Swimsuit Sz 30-32Vtg 80s Budweiser Beer Bathing Suit Swim Trunks Board Shorts Bud Light Mens : MdVtg 80's Op Ocean Pacific Swim Suit Mens Bathing Suit L Pink Black Surf Shorts Rare Birdwell Beach Britches Vtg Orange Life Guard Xs - Small Mens Board ShortsVintage 40s 50s Dark Blue Red Windowpane Plaid Men's Swim Trunks W/beltVintage Mens Catalina “he-man” Brown Lastex Swim Trunks Suit Circa 1940s Size 34Vtg 80s Cheeter Jams Surf Line Swim Shorts Trunks L Mens Two Pairs!!Mens Vintage 70s Surfer Print Swim Trunks Shorts Swimsuit Surf Cotton Sz MRare! Vtg 80s Mens Quiksilver Short Shiny Nylon Surf Board Shorts Swim Trunks 36Vtg 80s * Ocean Pacific * Lined Swim Trunks Purple Op Nylon Shorts Mens : MdMens Vintage Weekend Gear Swim Shorts Size Large!!80's Retro!!Vtg 92/93 Polo Sport Swim Trunks Size Xxl Usa Flag Blue 10/10Men's Vintage Billion Yong Nylon Swimsuit Sz 30-33Men's Vintage Courtney & Brooks Swimsuit Sz 30-33Vintage 1960s Broderick Nylon Men's Bathing Suit Swimsuit Swim Brief 30 Classic Vtg Polo Ralph Lauren Red Swimwear Bathing Suit Med Board Shorts BoatingMen's Vintage Polo Ralph Lauren Board Shorts Swim Trunks-size LVintage Polo Ralph Lauren Size M Swim Trunks/shorts/orange/canoeMen's Vintage Courtney & Brooks Swimsuit Sz SmallOriginal Jams Vintage Board Shorts Mens L Red Floral Great Condition Free ShipOriginal Jams Vintage Board Shorts Mens L Pink Floral Great Condition Free ShipMens Vintage 60s Swim Trunks Short Shorts Swimsuit Rockabilly Red Gingham 38Vintage Mens Woolrich Swim Trunks Large Red Blue Short Length 15 Inch SuitVtg Hot Tracks High Cut Jogging Shorts Swim Trunks Size Medium?Men's Vintage Japanese Sain Sou Swimsuit Sz 33-36Vtg 1930's 1940's Boy/men Blue Wool Bathing Suit Orig. Belt 28" Jr. Life SavingVintage 80s Nike Swim Trunks, Size Small DeadstockFlorida Beefcake Bicycle Bathing Suit Dude Male Man Gay Boy Old Vintage PostcardMto Mens Vintage 90's Bathing Suit Swim Shorts Summer Retro Red Blue Rad Large