The History and Evolution of Men’s Swimwear

The garments and equipment a gentleman will need in order to engage in active sports are largely dictated by his sport(s) of choice. The cardinal rule pertaining to outfitting oneself for active sports, regardless of the sport, is:  safety, first; efficacy, second; quality, third; comfort, fourth; style, fifth.

There are lots of sports in the world; and each sport has its active participants. But if there is one sporting activity that unites most men, it is swimming. And as such, an essential part of any gentleman’s wardrobe is swimwear.  (Even a man who lives in a desert must have one for when he happens upon an oasis!)

The famous mosaic—of ancient women dressed in bikinis—at the 4th-century Villa Romana del Casales, in Piazza Armerina, Sicily, is one of the earliest surviving depictions of what could be regarded as swimwear.  And all seaside and water-going peoples, from  time immemorial, have no doubt worn garments while swimming. But it was the advancements in rail travel in the mid-1800s, facilitating mass visits to seaside areas, that was the impetus for swimwear becoming a designated category of clothing. Since the 1800s—when ladies would wear full-length dresses with added weights to keep hemlines from floating upwards while swimming, and men would wear full-bodied swimsuits that resemble long-johns—swimwear has evolved.  During the Edwardian era, the “long-john” swimsuit look became emboldened, sporting short-sleeves and a pants-portion shortened to cover up to the mid-thigh. By the 1920s, men were wearing sleeveless union suits that extended to mid-thighs. But it was the 1930s that forever liberated men’s swimwear:  Men were swimming topless, with swimwear shortened to expose even the upper-thighs! Today, men almost always swim torse nu, and their swim trunks range from knee-length surfer shorts to thongs; and women’s suits—especially those worn on the Riviera and the beaches of Rio de Janeiro—are notorious for concealing only for the revealing.

What type of swimwear a gentleman wears should be primarily determined by culture and his physique.  In some regions of the world, swimwear is very brief; in others, it is very generous in cut. But within the confines of what is culturally and regionally accepted, a gentleman must make sure that his swimwear of choice fits him “just so.”  Because swimwear is typically mercilessly revealing, the difference between flattering and unflattering swimwear can oftentimes be determined by centimeters or inches.  Finding the perfect-cut swimwear is a matter of a good mirror; honest self-assessment; and lots of try-ons. And once a gentleman finds his cut, he should remain loyal to it until his physique changes and suggests otherwise.


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