A dive into the history of male bathing suits


The samurai’s fundoshi, the boxers of the 007, the tank top of the Great Gatsby. How the beach look has changed over the last century

This is the best time for the man who doesn’t want to forego elegance even when he’s at the beach. To understand this, it’s enough to review the history of the male bathing suit just a little bit. Today freedom is the master, and everyone can build his own style.

But it hasn’t always been like that.

The thong of the samurais and the Victorian wool suit

In the past, in antiquity, one bathed…naked! Indeed, before the nineteenth century only Japanese used the fundoshi, a thong worn by samurais under the armor and by men to swim or use the sauna.

In Europe, for all of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, nude was considered normal, indeed the cult of the body, of Hellenic origin, was cultivated. In the nineteenth century, English prudery spread like wildfire from its epicenter in the demure England of Queen Victoria. And here the stylish man, with impeccable morality, is forced to cover himself with extremely heavy one-piece wool bathing suits with horizontal stripes. It’s impossible to swim: every time you enter the water, the wet wool became so heavy as to prevent any movement. As soon as you found yourself in a group of men only, you got rid of that lead suit. Things weren’t any better for women, who up until the early years of the twentieth century were forced to change in the so-called bathing machine: wooden carts on wheels that were pushed into the water. The occupant could thus change just before bathing, far from the prying eyes of men. On the beach it was mandatory to wear a hat.

From the great Gatsby to Tarzan

In the Twenties bathing suits are even more chaste: the stylish man must wear shorts with a belt and a striped tank shirt, like that which can be seen in The Great Gatsby, with Robert Redford a Victorian striped merman. A clause in the rules of US beach establishments stipulated that shorts couldn’t be any shorter than four inches above the knee.

The freedom from the obligation to wear a tank top on the beach is due to Tarzan: in 1924, a company called BVD engaged the five-time Olympic gold swimming medalist Johnny Weissmuller for seven years as a model for an innovative close-fitting one-piece bathing suit, very similar to those still worn today by swimmers. But three years later Weissmuller signed another contract, this time with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, to play the lord of the jungle, causing a sensation for his “nudity”: he wasn’t wearing a tank top!

007: (un)dressed to kill

We’ll need to get to the Sixties before we see the appearance of the first timid “trunks”, tight boxers worn by the tough guy Steve McQueen along with the sophisticated Sean Connery in Thunderball (1965). It’s the British secret agent who makes popular the short bathing suit, now in fashion again, cut well above the knee, with comfortable pockets, ideal for going to the beach restaurant.

Bond is also the first to clear the way for “baby blue”: a very light turquoise used for baby clothing. In 2006 in Casino Royale, Daniel Craig wears very short and tight “shorts”.

Big Wednesday (or Baywatch)

But let’s take a leap back a few years. When, in the summer of 1964, L’esercito del surf helped launch the acting career of Catherine Spaak, men’s bathing suits were very similar to the current ones: tight-fitting shorts, preferably dark.

In the summer of 1978, another small revolution changed everything: skin was covered up, there’s the return of spacious bathing suits that come well below the knee.

They’re half-leg shorts, or rather surfers, and they also have their illustrious cinematographic reference: they’re seen in Big Wednesday, which consecrates the unspoiled image of California surfers, but which in fashion will only last a few seasons. A decade after the film-manifesto on surfer youth, boxers once again are shortened, with floral Hawaiian-Californian patterns replaced by the red-orange color: it’s the Baywatch effect. They’re colors that now you would be advised to choose carefully to avoid being mistaken for the lifeguard.

A future to wear

And what’s in store in 2019? The present, but especially the future, is all to be written, or to be worn, but one thing is certain: in the twenty-first century men’s beach fashion will be anything but boring. It could be innovative, or with a vintage flair. It could propose original concepts, or re-elaborate historical materials and patterns. It will be in the spirit of freedom, but with an eye on the history of the male bathing suit and the other on one’s personal style it will be possible to avoid false steps on the beach.

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