Summer is approaching in most areas of the northern hemisphere and so it seems natural to think about the swimsuits you are going to wear this season. Hence, I would like to present the ultimate men’s swimwear guide that begins with the history of the garment, continues with specific style advice for swim trunks or briefs and ends with links to sources from which
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you can find all kinds of swimwear at various price points. Overall, you should not have to read anything else to look your best at the beach, pool or lake this summer.
The History of Men’s Swimwear
For the most part of human history, bathing has always been done…naked. Before the 19th century, there were only few cultures, such as the Japanese who used a loincloth (fundoshi), that used a specific garment by men to swim or bath. Interestingly, even the then rather uptight English society accepted naked bathing in general. Only few towns such as Bath in England had swimwear regulations asking men to wear “drawers and a waistcoat” but the baths were also public places. In small towns, men usually bathed au naturel on one end of the beach or river and the ladies would enter the water in specially created bathing cars that blocked the views with umbrellas from prying eyes. The swimsuit as we know it today had only just seen the light of day by 1869, when Frédéric Bazille painted Scène d’été. It is remarkable how very similar these early items of men’s swimwear were to modern day swim trunks – even the leopard and zebra patterns were around back then!
Nevertheless, right into the Edwardian period not every bather would wear one. In fact, up until 1906 men were bathing completely naked in the morning in Hyde Park, London. Right around that time, seaside authorities insisted on bath costumes for men, which paved the way for mixed sex bathing. Interestingly, Oxford University maintained a special place called Parsons’ Pleasure dedicated to nude bathing for men until 1991!
With bathing regulations increasing the demand for swimsuits, the Bradley Knitting Company from Delavan, Wisconsin became was the first large-scale producer of swimsuits in the US (they survived until 1940). By 1910, the Oregon-based Portland Knitting Company – renamed to Jantzen in 1916 – entered the market, and launched a number of industry firsts such as rib-stitch bathing costumes, or “light weight” bathing suits.
By 1912, Bentz Knitting Mills (Catalina) added swimwear to their product range and in the following years, the world demand for swimsuits increased with each passing year.
The first swimsuits were made out knitted wool because it could be stretched and absorbed less water than cotton. Soon thereafter, rubber was occasionally used until Nylon entered the commercial market in 1938.
Throughout the 1910’s, most men wore the tank suits in the water. Mostly sold in solid colors such as black or navy, this bathing costume reached all the way down to the elbow and the knees. In the 1920’s the sleeves disappeared and the armholes were cut more generously. Overall, the one piece suit and swimsuit separates in cross stripes and solid colors both had about 50% of the market share.
While pale skin used to be a symbol of the upper class, a tan had become fashionable by the 1930’sas an indication of the ability to enjoy leisurely, and often expensive, sporting pursuits. Consequently, the shirt part of the swimsuit was first reduced in size before it vanished completely, resulting in simple swim trunks or shorts. Blue was the preferred color for swim trunks but bold stripes were likewise popular. The one piece suit was worn less and less, making room for other accessories such as matching beach shoes, like espadrilles, and beach robes.
Stars like Fred Perry – here with Marlene Dietrich – helped to popularize the new reduced swim trunk shape.
The interwar years and the resulting fabric shortages held men’s swimwear styles to shorter lengths. Colors included rich green, browns, oranges, as well as blue and black.
The 1950’s brought various changes to the swimwear industry. The growing middle class demanded more swimsuits and the introduction of miracle fibers such as Lycra, Crepe and Drilon increased comfort, accelerated drying times and prevented wrinkles in men’s swimwear. On top of that, zippers were used in swim trunks and patterns as well as style choices increased considerably.
In general, swim trunks were shorter than ever in 1960 and the landing on the moon had its impact on the fabric choices in swimwear. So-called “space age fabrics” were available bright and psychedelic color palettes. Manufacturers even offered swimwear in baby corduroy, terry cloth and denim. Some of the swimwear featured belts and looked remarkably similar to the 1930’s. In 1960, the Australian swimwear brand Speedo introduced the famous men’s swimming briefs, which were designed by Peter Travis. They were so successful that this very kind of swimming brief is referred to as Speedo in the US.
The seventies was the decade of the hippies and it certainly rubbed off on men’s swimwear designs. In a nutshell, colors were bright, cuts exotic and altogether there was little that did not exist in some form or another. Even the tank suit had a short revival, while others wore tanga thongs in elastane.
The 1980s were uneventful in terms of swimsuit fashion. Neoprene was sometimes used for swimwear but overall trunks remained the #1 swim suit until the 1990’s, when loosely fitting board shorts entered the market.
Especially in the US, long and loosely fitting board shorts became the preferred swimsuit for men.
In the the beginning of the 21st century, some men favored the Brazilian sunga swim briefs, which were very short. Others kept wearing trunks, while the majority in the U.S. still prefers the board shorts, even though the shorts became trimmer and shorter than in the nineties.
Competitive swimmers opted for full body fastskin suits that enabled them to swim world record times. Interestingly, they were very similar to the original tank suits. Due to their performance enhancing properties, they are no longer allowed for swim races and hence disappeared.
What Swimwear Style Is Right For You?
Today, there are many swimwear styles available ranging from tightly fitting swim briefs like the original speedo or thong tanga models to roomy boardshorts. However, not everybody can pull off the swim trunks Daniel Craig wore in Casino Royale, nor are they to everyone’s taste. First of all, it depends on your height and built. A thin man that is 6’8″ tall and thin should consider wearing longer and wider board shorts while a shorter man should opt for shorter trunks or briefs. Also, if swimming is the primary use, you need different swimsuits than if you just want to relax on the beach or by the pool. First, let’s look at leisure swimwear. In order to make it easier for you, we created six categories: tall men (6′ or above), short men and then buff, thin or big build.
Tall & Buff
Are you 6′ or taller, with broad shoulders and chest, and do you like to workout with weights, then you fall into the tall & buff category meaning you can wear anything you like because chances are it will always look good on you. If you have a good tan, lighter colors like white or pastel tones look great, but bear in mind that white rarely stays like that for a long time. In case you like bolder patterns, think about a classic paisley, madras or gingham.
Tall & Thin
If you are 6′ or taller with a slender built, go for traditional board shorts. An 8″ inseam is enough for people around 6′, and taller men can increase it to 10″ as long as they end above the knee. While a fuller cut is good, avoid the baggy board shorts trend from the 1990’s. They have the unfortunate tendency to look too youthful or simply sloppy. If you are really tall, it will be difficult to find anything with a longer inseam. You definitely want to avoid vertical stripes, because these will give you the appearance of being taller and thinner than you already are. On the other hand, horizontal stripes may work for you. In any case, avoid skinny Speedo swim briefs because chances are it will make you look boyish. In terms of color choice, your complexion should be a good guide: if you are pale, avoid extreme colors in terms of lightness and darkness, whereas men with a tan often look better with lighter or bright colors. A rich blue like in the picture (or green, red, etc. ) will work for anybody.
Big & Tall
As a big & tall man, you want to look advantageous and long, dark, solids board shorts will do just that for you. If your thighs are not too strong, try to avoid shorts that are too baggy. If you prefer patterns, go for a micro pattern or vertical stripes. Avoid swim trunks, Speedo briefs and thong style swimwear.
Short & Buff
The best style for shorter, buff men will be a trunk or boxer style because the shorter inseam makes you look taller. I’d recommend avoiding suits with an inseam longer than 6″. At any cost, avoid board shorts because they make you visually even shorter and often overhang the knee, while vertical stripes will help you look taller.
Short & Thin
If you are short and slender opt for trunks, or slim board shorts with a shorter inseam. Avoid bold and large patterns, as they will overpower your small stature. Choose microprints, or low contrast stripes instead.
Short & Big
In case you are shorter and bigger, consider a pair of high-cut briefs that would give the illusion of longer legs. Below you can see the original model in khaki which was designed for the Underwater Demolition Team in the forties and they are still used by the Navy Seals today. At just $18, you get a classic swim trunk that won’t break the bank. You want to opt for a looser fit without an elastic waistband, because it will make you look bigger. If the swimsuit cuts into your stomach, better go with the next larger size. Dark solids colors will always work and often have a slimming effect, but dark vertical stripes are also good as long as they are not too bold.
What Not to Wear
Regardless of your stature and build, if the goal is to look great at the beach, there are a few things to avoid that apply to everyone interested in a classic look. If possible, avoid large logo or brand symbols. I am sure you all have seen men in large Armani, Versace or Hugo Boss shorts or briefs but big branding tends to scream with a lack of self confidence, not to mention lack of personal style. So, don’t be a brand victim and choose a tasteful model that suits your physique and complexion rather than being the equivalent of an advertising billboard.
Materials & Workmanship
While natural fibers like wool used to be the number one material used in swimwear, most trunks today are made of Nylon, Polyamide or Polyester. Sometimes, cotton is added but the important aspects for the material are comfort, quick-drying capability, color retention and durability. Modern shorts and trunks also come with an SPF ratings and some even advertise their “tan through” characteristics. At the end of the day, man-made fibers are a good choice for swim trunks, because they add strength and durability. Whether you opt for a liner or not is entirely up to you. Some men like them, others don’t. Traditional swim trunks like the UDT /Seal model in 60%cotton / 40% polyester always come without a liner. In my experience, the liner is usually the first thing that shows signs of wear. Traditional shorts are sewn and like shirts, the higher the stitch density the better it is, but also the quality of the thread is important. Sadly, you’ll only notice bad quality components once you have had it for a while. Some newer models come with taped seams but I have never experienced it personally, so I can’t say anything about the quality or durability of this feature.
Whether you want pockets is a matter of choice but I have found the little change / key pockets on the inside of swimwear to be rather helpful, especially if you are on vacation and you want to carry a few small things with you.
No matter what material you choose, always ensure to rinse your shorts thoroughly after you use them because the chlorine from the pool and salt from the sea wear hard on the fabric.
If you actually look for swimsuits because you want to experience the lowest resistance, you should skip any kind of loosely fitting swimwear and go right for the tight fitting performance gear that professional swimmers use.
Where to Buy Men’s Swimwear?
Now that you know what kind of style is right for you, it’s time to look at the sources. Nowadays there are a number of men’s swimwear suppliers with prices ranging from $18 for a pair of WWII UDT/ Navy Seal trunks to north of $200 for a designer model from the likes of Paul Smith.
If you are on a budget either go for inexpensive classics like the UDT Navy Seal trunks mentioned above, or try your luck at places like myhabit.com where you can find designer swimwear in limited styles for under $50. Places, like Zara, H&M, or Gap have swimwear as well but cheap fashion comes at a much higher cost than the pure face value.
If you are willing to spend around $100 classic brands like Ralph Lauren got you covered, however if you want something more exclusive, look at brands like Patagonia that has high environmental and supply chain standards or Made in the US models like Onia.
If money is no object, you can look at the usual suspects of designer swimwear or go with brands like Orlear Brown or Vilebrequin, but their styles are so slim that only models can wear it. In this bracket, you don’t really pay for any differences in quality, just for the look and design.
What swimwear do you wear? Do you know of any hidden gems that provide great products? Let us know in the comments.