The History of Bathing Costumes
As society has changed, so has men's swim wear.
It's a fair guess that through most of human history, swimming has been undertaken unclothed. That was certainly the case in Greek times, and a very practical solution when cloth was rather expensive and of natural fibres which would get very heavy when wet.
Like so many cherished eccentricities, men's swimwear first became remarkable in Victorian times - a famously prudish and straight-laced era. Given that it would be unthinkable to swim unclothed anywhere public, the next best thing was doubtless to strip down to Victorian underclothes, whose fully limb-covering modesty similarly reflected the spirit of the age.
Thus the late nineteenth century saw swimsuit designs derived from the underwear of the day, with the addition of bold stripes which probably served both to make clear that these were not actually a chap's scandalously revealed 'skivvies' or 'long johns' and also to distract from any intimate bodily outlines displayed under the clinging wet natural cloth.
Actually 'modern' style trunks would not have been practical to manufacture anyway, at a time when wool was a leading material and buttons rather than elastic were the usual means of fastening. If you can't yet picture why this could be a problem, picture jogging up the beach wearing a pair of soaking wet non-elasticated woollen shorts and what it might do for your dignity.
Men's swimwear continued to be shaped by such influences, not least moral ones, even through to the 1920s. 1917 saw the imposition of formal 'Bathing Suit Regulations' which stipulated that any body-fitting designs must have an outer 'skirt' to preserve modesty. This is surely the only time in recent history that staid upholders of public morality have not only permitted but positively insisted upon the wearing of skirts by men.
Even into the 1930s a chap could be arrested for going 'topless'. In the end, though, there were just too many social changes for the more inhibited members of society to fight. Ex-Olympian swimmer Johnny Weissmuller became a huge star as Tarzan, and already as a sportsman he had promoted more modern styles of swimwear. As time passed sleeves shrank into a more 'vest top' look and a somewhat fitted cut below the waist became somewhat more acceptable and certainly more fashionable. For a time there was even a trend for men's costumes with just one shoulder strap, the other shoulder being left bare: a look rather peculiar to modern eyes.
The 1930s trend towards elasticated underwear naturally influenced swimwear design (just as underwear was the prototype for the Victorians), and following the relaxation of rationing after a Second World War which had reshaped society and Empire in a way unimaginable to the Victorians, there were not only many high-spirited young men leaving the military with an appetite for change but also a huge demand for new styles, colours and fabrics.
The classic swimwear of the turn of the 19th/20th Century thus conjures up a remarkable feeling for the spirit of those times: absurd, quaint, noble but hilarious and strangely stylish all at once. There are few single, relatively simple and affordable garments which can evoke so much.