Just as women's suits have undergone a gradual evolution process, men's swim wear has undergone many changes since its inception. Designed from the beginning to be markedly different from the female's suit, the male swimsuit's characteristics of boxiness and solidity contrasted with the female's exaggerated curves. In other words, the gender properties of the suits were clearly defined.
During the 1880's, men's styles stuck close to the traditional skivvies. Improvements were made gradually. The first prototypes of the first "modern" swim trunks were cumbersome and made the action of swimming itself more difficult. The first Jantzen suit weighed 9 lb. when fully soaked, making them extremely heavy in water. They also had the unfortunate tendency of slipping down!
Modesty was an issue well into the 1920's. Under the "Bathing Suit Regulations" published in May 17, 1917, men's suits had to be worn with a skirt or have at least a skirt effect. The skirt had to be worn outside of the trunks. The other alternative was to wear a flannel knee pants with a vest and a fly front. During this time, the knitting mills were rapidly churning out many styles of suits, including the "speed suit," an one piece suit with deeply slashed armholes and closed leg trunks.
The introduction of Lastex (synthetic rubber yarn) created a whole new era in men's swim wear. With the popularity of the "nude" look during the 1930's providing the backdrop for beach-going attire, this "miracle fiber" made it possible to give the wearer control as well as the appearance of a fit form. Even chubby males had the chance to be "Mr. Muscles." Athletic supports, called "Sunaka" supports were sewn directly into the trunks, providing comfort and a trim appearance in front.
Though men were getting the opportunity to look better, there was still the little matter of baring the chest. Quite simply, it was frowned upon. However, men continued to fight for their right to expose their chest and by the early 1933, the result was a convertible-style suit that allowed the top to be removed. The introduction of the "Men's Topper" introduced a new thrill in men's swim wear. This unprecedented belted, two-tone wool suit gave the wearer the option to go bare (or not to go bare...). The deeply scooped top was attached to the front of the trunks with the newly-invented zipper. Instead of being connected, the back of the suit featured a "y" arrangement of straps to secure the top to the chest. The top was removed by just unzipping the zipper. Unfortunately for many of those who did, this led to arrests for "indecent exposure."
Thankfully, improvements were forthcoming. In 1933, the B.V.D company used Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller to promote its swimsuit line. Due to his recommendations of extra low cut arm holes on tank tops, a natural waist, and an extra full seat, the final outcome was the first pair of bathing trunks -- which actually came out first in France while conservatives in America still insisted on the two-piece suit. In an attempt to gain more public acceptance, companies tried to streamline the trunks by giving them more of a "dressed" look. This was done by showing a simulated fly front and giving them a kind of belt or buckle effect. In 1937, men finally had the right to go topless, when only a year earlier in 1936, the "no- shirt" movement had generated much controversy, with reported cases of topless men being banned from Atlantic City beaches in New Jersey.
The public's concern with nudity eroded as time passed. Shorts were the typical swim wear for men, with men's swimsuits during the 1940's looking very similar to the narrow hips and smooth abdomen of the women's styles. Of course, those males with a little more modesty in mind could always opt for the "boxer-type" shorts. Successful swim wear campaigns were not intended for the timid. In 1947, the Jantzen company hired James Garner as their "Mr. Jantzen" to model their line of "savage swim trunks."
With women's suits becoming more flamboyant than ever during the 1950's and beyond, the male bathing costume was not to be outdone, resulting an explosion of color patterns and fancy detailing. "Cabana sets" consisting of matching boxer trunks and shirts with loud prints such as zebra stripes and pony prints enjoyed much popularity during this time. Boxer trunks were here to stay -- becoming a sort of "screen" to project the men's hobbies and interests. While women's swim wear underwent almost constant transformation in style, men's swim wear was confined, for the most part, to the basic boxer and brief.
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© Copyright by Roselyn Hsueh - All Rights Reserved
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© Copyright by Roselyn Hsueh - All Rights Reserved 1997