We imagine cavemen in furry nappies, ancient Egyptians in loincloths and Victorians in striped long underwear. In the minds of most people, thats what constitutes mens and boys swimwear fashion over the centuries. The reality, of course, was somewhat different.
The ancient world
The Egyptians, Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks and Romans all had swimming as part of their culture. However, evidence of how mens and boys swimwear looked varies considerably. In southwest Egypt, the Cave of Swimmers wall drawings, thought to be some 10,000 years old, depict nude swimmers; not much fashion there then. However, other pre-Christian art shows men swimming in robes and long billowing trousers, so there was no consistent style of swimwear in the ancient world.
The dark and middle ages
In Europe, the art of swimming was not much practised after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Water was unsafe to drink, and people thought that swimming in the stuff would invite plague. Theres even a theory that people did not swim because to show you could float was evidence that you practised witchcraft!
Changing attitudes in the 18th and 19th centuries
It wasnt until the mid-1700s that bathing came back into fashion. Doctors in England started to prescribe sea baths as a cure for all sorts of illnesses. Sea bathing received the Royal seal of approval when George III took to the waters in Weymouth in 1789. The idea of swimming for health reasons quickly spread across the channel. The French aristocracy took to the past time after the Duchesse de Berry, the daughter-in-law of Charles X, took an inaugural dip at Dieppe in 1824. Her first swim even merited a ceremonial volley of cannon fire when she entered the waters in August of that year. In England until the 1830s, the sexes swam separately at different times and places, and so it was common for men to swim nude.
The first swimwear styles
It wasnt until the 1840s when mixed bathing became acceptable in Britain that the first bathing costumes appeared for men. However, because swimming was not yet deemed suitable for children, there was no boys swimwear fashion at this point. Mens swimwear in the 1840s consisted of colourfully striped short-legged drawers with a drawstring at the waist. This swimwear fashion was imported from France where mixed bathing had existed since the late 18th century. However, a key design flaw the drawers had a habit of falling off caused the market to move to a new design: a one-piece with a short-sleeved top and short-legged bottoms. Often the outfit had a broad horizontal striped pattern, which is what many of us imagine, correctly it turns out, was the fashion in Victorian times.
The 20th century
The advent of paid leave for the working man and comprehensive railway networks allowed whole families to take sea-side holidays for the first time. Swimming came to be seen as a recreation and something in which children could participate. This change in attitude created a market for boys swimwear, which mimicked mens designs. After the first world war, it became fashionable to have a tan, so mens and boys swimwear lost the sleeves the tops morphed into a singlet style with narrow shoulder straps and became shorter in the leg.Knitted wool became common, and in the 1930s, the top half of the outfit disappeared perhaps influenced by the 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man film starring a bare-chested Johhny Weissmuller. After the second world war, swimwear fashion started to evolve once more. New man-made fabrics such as latex and lycra made the costumes more like a second skin, and the number of colour combinations exploded.
In continental Europe in the 60s and 70s, the diminutive Speedo style costume took off (figuratively speaking). In Anglo-Saxon countries, fashion went in the other direction from the 1990s. Mens and boys swimwear covered up more of the leg down to or even below the knee. This Speedos v Boardies clash of styles has even been the source of political strife. In many European countries, local governments have banned board shorts, Bermudas and the like in municipal swimming pools because of hygiene concerns. In 2007, one local authority in Belgium was accused of imposing the rule in order to dissuade Muslims presumed to want to dress more conservatively from using its pool. The other big recent innovation is the development of body-covering sun protection swimwear. Through the use of lycra and new finishing techniques, rash vests and one-piece body suits have appeared on the beaches providing 50+ UPF sun-blocking properties.