For most of human history, recreational swimming was done naked. (Non-recreational swimming was done in whatever you were wearing when you fell in, because it beat the heck out of drowning.)
Purpose-designed swimwear started out as a modesty garment first, and a practical garment very much second. Early swimsuits were made from knit wool, and in the case of women’s swimwear included long skirts, weighted down at the hem to keep the water from lifting them up.
Suits were strictest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when both men and women were prohibited by law and custom from going barechested in public. One-piece suits with cutoff sleeves and legs were the common style.
In the 50s and 60s, men actually organized protests arguing for the right to go topless. Many were cited for public indecency until the laws finally changed. (Women are undergoing a very similar struggle right now.)
From that point on, swimsuits were more about function than modesty. Specialty suits began to evolve in the 60s and onward, leading up to today’s world of wetsuits, drysuits, racing wear, drag suits for training, and more.
Contemporary swimsuits can serve both decorative and practical functions. Most strive for both. Swimsuits are usually categorized by the length and looseness of their cut:
- Trunks are the most common men’s swimwear in North America. They look similar to shorts worn as clothing on land, but are made from light, fast-drying materials (usually nylon or polyester) and feature a tighter-fitting lining inside the shorts. Longer versions that come past the knee are sometimes called boardshorts.
- Swim briefs are often called “speedos,” a trademarked brand that has been popular for many years. They are tight, body-hugging swimsuits with a V-shaped front that bares the thighs. Recreational swim briefs typically feature an interior lining.
- Square-cut shorts are a body-hugging style that covers the wearer from the waist to the upper thigh. The leg openings are cut straight across the thigh for a boxy look that is slightly less revealing than angled swim briefs.
- Jammers are knee-length, skintight suits used by competitive swimmers and other watersports participants to reduce drag. They resemble bike shorts, but without the padded crotch and seat.
- Racing suits are tight, form-fitting suits designed to reduce drag by streamlining the body and skin. They come in a number of cuts, baring or covering varying amounts of arm and leg. Modern marketing usually refers to them as “skins,” i.e., bodyskin, legskin, kneeskin, etc.
- Wetsuits and drysuits are insulated suits designed for prolonged immersion, usually in the context of snorkeling, scuba diving, or board sports. They are quite close-fitting.
- Rash guards are a looser form of all-body swimwear than a wetsuit, and are generally used by watersports participants such as surfers, kayakers, and paddleboarders. Most are made from a UV-reflective fabric with a UPF rating.
- Swim shirts are an upper-body-only version of a rash guard, and are gaining popularity as a sun and surf protection option for casual bathers.
- Thongs are small briefs designed to expose the buttocks. Many cultures traditionally use thong-style swimwear for men, such as the Japanese fundoshi, but in contemporary Western culture thongs are predominantly marketed toward women. Men can and do wear them, however.
All of the above styles can come in nearly any color or pattern imaginable, provided one is willing to shop around long enough. Traditional colors and patterns for men include solid navy blue, blue-and-white striping, and floral or Hawaiian-style prints.
Buying a Swimsuit
Swimsuits are, relative to a lot of menswear, forgiving garments to shop for. You don’t need an absolutely perfect tailored fit, so long as the suit stays up when you dive in (and most have a cord at the waist to help with that).
That doesn’t mean you should grab whatever’s cheapest off the Wal-Mart shelf and call it a day, though. You’re likely to only have one or two swim garments in your wardrobe at a time, so it’s worth finding ones you really like.
A couple key steps:
1. Know Your Active Needs
Just how intense are your activities going to be in your swimwear?
A swimsuit for a hotel pool now and then doesn’t have a lot of technical requirements. Something to go surfing in for hours at a stretch is another matter.
Think about the following when you’re weighing swimsuit options:
- How much leg movement are you going to do? Loose fabric, when wet, can chafe very quickly, so a loose trunk style of shorts isn’t great if you plan on walking around in your suit or using your legs for exercise. (Despite the “boardshort” name, pro surfers usually wear snug, tight-fitting swimwear these days.)
- How much actual swimming (as opposed to wading and splashing around) are you going to do? You’ll want to reduce drag if you’re actually propelling yourself through the water for any length of time, making a tighter fit preferable.
- How much sun protection do you need? For prolonged sun exposure, it’s worth considering something that covers the upper body as well as the lower.
As you can see, the basic, short-like trunk style is really only suited for casual users who plan on lying around, wading, and maybe doing a little light swimming. If you’re planning on being more sporty than that, a snugger fit and potentially some more body coverage is worth considering.
2. Know the Visual Impression You Want
Who you’re going to be wearing your swimsuit around, and what you want from them, plays just as important a role as your activities.
Family vacationers don’t have much in the way of stylistic needs. Men who are planning on hitting up beach parties and crowd scenes, perhaps with an eye toward meeting women (or other men) for romance, need to be a little pickier. And businessmen who may end up in the spa or hotel pool with co-workers and business partners have their own special concerns. Ask yourself:
- Are you trying to impress anyone? If not, stop worrying. Wear whatever is comfortable and works for you.
- Are you trying to look professional? Conservative (but not exaggerated) length, conventional styles (trunks or square-cuts), and dark, solid colors or restrained stripes are for you. Navy blue with brass-colored grommets and white rope ties are always safe.
- Do you want to look sexy? If so, you’ll need a cut that flatters your body type (see below), and a color and pattern that’s eye-catching without being ridiculous. Think stripes, plaids, bright solids, or some not-too-crazy floral patterning.
These affect cuts as well as colors and patterns: tight, form-fitting styles look sharp and practical in the longer cuts, but sexualized and only good for showing off your bod in the smaller cuts. Baggier styles look less sexualized, but can also look slumped and casual, like you don’t care about your appearance.
3. Be Honest About Your Body
It’s the 21st century — if you want to let it all hang out, you’re free to, at least as far as the local laws permit it.
That said, some realistic expectations about who wants to see your naked flesh, and how much of it, go a long way. A little self-consciousness is not a bad thing. Be honest:
- Are you a little soft around the middle? If you are, a looser cut will balance things out a bit, and you’ll absolutely want to avoid anything with a tight, strongly-elasticized waist opening that’s going to dig in to your belly.
- Are your thighs and buttocks toned? If they’re not, a tight swimming brief or thong is going to expose a lot of jiggle. Your call on whether you want to do that or not.
- Are you fit, but not interested in getting ogled? Longer, form-fitting styles like jammers or skinsuits are for you: all the streamlining and none of the naked flesh. It desexualizes things a bit.
There are no right or wrong choices here, but you should realistically expect your choices to have some effect on other people. There are going to be visual judgments, whether you want them or not.
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