Just as women’s suits have undergone a gradual evolution process, men’s swimwear has undergone many changes since its inception. The Valentine Richmond History Center has a comprehensive collection of men’s swimwear that represents this progression of styles.
Until the 19th century, swimming was almost always done in the nude. The first prototypes of “modern” swimsuits were heavy and made of wool, making the action of swimming itself more difficult. Modesty was also an issue well into the 1920s. These two suits are good examples of early styles from 1890 and 1919, respectively.
Swimsuits gradually became less bulky but men were not allowed to bare their chests until the 1940s. Once this change occurred, men’s swimsuits evolved into the trunk style that is commonplace today. This example, ca. 1970, is similar in silhouette to men’s board shorts currently on the market.
Eventually, society’s concern for nudity disappeared completely and men’s swimsuits became as skimpy as the women’s styles of the time. This pair of Gucci briefs, ca. 1990, would make the first bikinis look modest.
In the 2010s there are a variety of men’s swimsuit styles available and an “anything goes” attitude. It is up to the wearer to decide how modest, outlandish, retro, or modern he wants his beachwear to be.
Costume and Textiles Intern
Valentine Richmond History Center