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 ...

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    

Vtg 1920's 30's Unusual Men's Ladies Wool Blue & Gray 2-piece Swimsuit & ShortsAntique Early 1900s Mens Womens? Bathing Suit Brown & Stripes ExtendedVtg Wool Jantzen Bathing Swim Suit Size 38 1920s Vintage Men's Speedo Swimsuit 34Vtg 90's Ralph Lauren Men Black Polo Pony Logo Rider Baggies Beach Surf Shorts LVintage Vilebrequin Trunks Men's Xxl Maillot De Bain Surf Blue Swim Board ShortsVintage Solar Tan Thriugh Mens Swimsuit XlNew 1920s Vintage Glenwood Knit Wool Bathing Suit Never Worn Boys Maroon Sz34Vintage Katin Custom Surf Trunks Beach Swim Red Nylon Board Shorts - Mens 34Vintage Hobie Swim Trunks Pink Lime Green Purple Men's Medium MNew 1920s Vintage Unbranded Knit Wool Bathing Suit Never Worn Boys Black Sz30Mens Vintage Swimsuit Bathing Suit Trunks Wool W/ Cute Belt Buckle W/a Swimmer!Polo Ralph Lauren Swim Trunks Board Shorts Big Pony Royal Ryc Logo Red Large VtgVintage Tommy Hilfiger Aquatic Sport Gear Dive Shorts (men L)Vintage 60s Cal Surf Swimming Trunks Bathing Suit Shorts Men's L 34-36Vintage 60's Jantzen Men's Orange Bold Funky Mod Print Swim Trunks Sz 42 MediumVtg. Deco 1920's Wool Jersey Knit Swim Suit Tank Top, Navy Blue W/ White Stripes☀️patagonia Mens Xl Baggies Shorts Swim Trunks Snap Back Pocket Vtg~euc!Men's Vintage Katin Custom Surf Trunks Beach Black Nylon Board Shorts -size 36Men Rvca Vintage Stretch Swim Trunks 33 S15invVtg Patagonia Nylon Baggies 4" Mens M Swim Shorts Lined Trunks Belted PalmWalbusch -vintage Swimwear For Men, Size 8(xxl)Rare Vintage Ralph Lauren Polo Sport Mens M Swim Trunks Embroidered Board ShortsAuthentic Vintage Pucci Men's Bikini Rare Size M Turqouise Black Green GayWarriors Of Radness Men's Size 34 New Vtg Fresh Jive Swim Trunks Surfing YellowVintage 80's Nautica N-ss 1983 Swim Trunks Men's L Fast Dry Mesh Lined ShortsVtg.1950's Men's Shorts / Swim Trunks, Modernist Hawaiian Print, RockabillyVintage Midcentury Men's Swim Trunks Beefcake 40's 50's 60's 32 MVintage 1970's Men's M L Hang Ten Bright Yellow Striped Swim Trunks Swim ShortsRvca 7989 Mens Red Striped Honcho Vintage Stretch Swim Trunks 32 BhfoVintage Tyr Racing Suit Size 36Infinity Vintage Swimwear For Men, Great Design, Size: Xl (7)Sportino -vintage Swimwear For Men, Size:7(xl)Ronley-vintage Swimwear For Men, Size: 5(m)Palmers Vintage Swimwear For Men, Great Design, Size:l (6)Vintage Stussy Board Shorts Sz 32 White Supreme SurfSpeedo -vintage Swimwear For Men, Size:7(xl)True-vintage Swimwear For Men, Size:7(xl)Polo Sport Ralph Lauren Board Shorts Swim Trunks Vintage 90s Vtg Sz XlMen's Vintage-style Aussiebum Swim Briefs - RedVintage Mens Adidas Swim Briefs Royal Blue Waist 32 Inch 1980's 'speedo' StyleMen's Vintage Board Shorts-trunks-bathing Suit - 30/32" - 100% Cotton By "lavon"Vtg 1970's Jcpenney Towncraft Mens Brown Swim Shorts Size 34 Blue Yellow PipingVintage Polo Sport Ralph Lauren Spell Out Bathing Suit Men's 32Vintage Tommy Hilfiger Athletics Navy Blue Swim Trunks Shorts Mens Size L Large Men`s Vintage Pre-owned/used Light-blue Hengella Swim Brief/trunks Size L Gr.7Men`s Vintage Nylon Black-multi Swim Brief/trunks Size Large Brand New! Vintage Nautica Men's Bathing Suit Size Medium Speedo Vtg Blue Nylon/polyester Mesh Liner Drawstring Swim Trunks Size 4xl