Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Trivial Pursuits - A Short History of Men's Swim Wear

Summer, although lackluster this year, was upon me and I found myself frequenting the beach hanging out with the friends I have acquired there over the years. There is, in Chicago,a gay beach. Even though not officially designated as such, gay men are the predominant species there. Over the years we have managed to maintain our hold on this stretch of land. One way we have accomplished this is our choice of swim and sun wear. Bikinis and speedos abound. Sometimes even a thong or g string are on display. Sometimes these are sported by men with the appropriate physical attributes to suit this brief attire, sometimes not. I recall on the gay cruise on which I embarked and which sparked the formation of my blog, one particular man. He had to paraphrase Sondheim "A pauch and a pouch and a pension". He seemed to be always on the deck by the pool clad in a speedo style suit, his ample belly hanging over it's drawstring waist stretching it to it's maximum capacity. I found myself on that trip thinking that, although I admired his moxie, I did not particularly wish to see his moxie.

The men whose company I keep at the beach tend to be of my vintage. Some a bit older, some a bit younger. More that one has a past which includes children. It is always interesting to me to encounter men like these as I have been aware and open with my sexuality since the age of 17. We have discussed life experience, politics and theatre. We share thoughts and exchange ideas. I like to thing that at times we resemble a somewhat sandy Algonquin Round Table. One of the subjects we have discussed, presumably because the inspiration lies splayed about on the sand around us, is the evolution of men's "bathing attire."

In the early years of the 20th century tans were considered unfashionable bordering on vulgar. They suggested that one worked outdoors, a most ungenteel aspiration. Beach photos from that era show the women in long skirts, long sleeve blouses and hats designed to preserve their almost vampire like complexions. Men, when they were so bold as to don the swim suits of the day, clad themselves in modified tank suits. Although some of the racier styles bared the arms and shoulders, others had short sleeves and pants that came almost, if not below, the knees. In many of these photos this look is complemented by a boater as men were obliged, whenever practical, to wear a hat when out of doors; which was courteously removed when coming inside. As time passed the legs became shorter and bared arms became the norm. By the 30's as swimming developed into more of a sport, the chest was also bared and the brief style of bathing suit was born which allowed greater freedom of movement. These early suits were made of wool which was not only uncomfortably hot and itchy but also sagged and became heavy when wet.

As science evolved rubber was incorporated with other fabrics which not only made the suits more comfortable but also allowed a more tight fitting and sleeker silhouette. Nylon spurred development of lighter weight suits. The basic box cut style remained as a main stay of men's swim wear for several decades.

The 70's issued in the age of the speedo. Thanks to the miracle of spandex, tight, brief, form fitting swim suits could be spied on nearly every beach and around every pool in America. Short shorts and skimpy, sometimes even see through mesh, shirts were also in fashion as men appeared to revel in revealing the ultra thin physiques in vogue during that decade.

In the 80's, as more muscular bodies came into fashion, swim wear remained, thankfully, on the small side. One even encountered the occasional "Greek" or "Rio back" bikini. Street and club wear of the time clung to the new gym built bodies revealing every hard earned ripple and bulge. In one James Bond movie of the period the ubertall, uberblond villain sported, on his uberdefined swimmer's body, the tiniest of bright blue bikinis. This style continued into the 90's.

Then, for a reason I've never understood, a new male modesty began to take over. The bikini and boxcut gave way to the board short, long, almost to the knee and almost completely useless for swimming. Even the speedos, which made the Summer Olympics such a tantalizing feast of eye candy, were replaced with body covering "shark suits", which, although, giving the swimmer greater speed, made the observation of the swimmer lose much of it's allure. We were left with only the long rise, small, snug suits worn by divers and water polo players. The legs of wrestling singlets were lenghtened, against the objections of the wrestlers themselves who said the shorter legs were better suited to their sport.

This modesty has become enforced in certain situations. A friend of ours was informed at a water park that his suit was inappropriate. They made wear board shorts they kept on hand for scantily clad miscreants such as he. The women, meanwhile, slid down the water slides in the skimpiest suits imaginable. Men still daring to were speedos are called a variety of unflattering names.

By contrast, as men's beachwear has begun to cover more and more over the last 2 decades, the posing suits worn by competitive bodybuilders have grown smaller and smaller. Some are almost at the male stripper g string level. I have heard that in some European competitions, Europeans have always been less body phobic that Americans, posing suits have been done away with altogether, putting  all of the gym built "assets" of the participants on full display.

Perhaps someday the pendulum will swing back and the heterosexual American male will once again move towards more revealing, and frankly, for swimming, more practical trunks. Then again, with the burgeoning obesity crisis in the U.S., some things might best be left as they are.



  1. Related - gym shorts for men look almost like skirts these days.

    1. I miss the shorts that male tennis players used to wear. Meanwhile the female players sometimes almost look like strippers!