This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of SwimSwam magazine. Subscribe here.
To win a swimming race, you can rely on your strength, your talent, a bit of luck, and not much else. In the pool, it’s only you and the water. However, one thing that can influence your performance is what you’re wearing: the cap, the goggles and, of course, the swimsuit. Your choice of swimsuit influences the race more mentally than physically, but this wasn’t the case in the early years of swimming.
A hundred years ago, things were different. Trying to swim even just 50 meters in a woolen swimsuit would seem crazy today. It’s the kind of thing we have kids do on “game day” for fun, not for competition. The evolution of swimwear and accessories has been influenced over time not only by new technologies and theories on hydrodynamics, and it has also been informed by the fashions and aesthetic tastes of each decade.
Between scandals, trends and changes in regulations, swimmers and their swimsuits have become icons. In the early 20th century, athletes competing for a medal wore a woolen bodysuit that was almost identical for men and women. These suits covered the swimmer from hips to shoulders. The model made of wool was soon replaced by suits made of lighter materials.
In 1912 the first silk swimsuits appeared. This material offered less resistance in the water but had the unfortunate defect of becoming immediately transparent. For this reason, underwear was worn underneath the suit.
In 1924 a female suit was introduced which provided a skirt, similar to those used by tennis players, to partially hide the hip area. The portion of bare skin shown by athletes has been a topic of discussion on many occasions, but this became an issue only in the women’s field. If it is true that in the 1920s the Swede Arne Borg was considered an example of class and elegance in his transparent silk costume with the yellow-blue flag embroidered on the chest, things were different on the female side.
At the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Australian breaststroker Clare Dennis was almost disqualified because of her swimsuit. After conquering the final of the 200-meter breaststroke with the best time, a protest was lodged against Dennis by some international judges who considered her costume inappropriate because it exposed too much of her shoulder blade. The Australian delegation appealed just in time to readmit Clare to the final, and she won the gold medal with a new Olympic record.
Only four years after Clare’s scandalous shoulders, the world of swimming decided on a different approach: less is better. As little material as possible was used to cover the athletes’ bodies. In 1936 we see the first bare-chested men in the swimming pools, while women wore models similar to the ones we use today in training with thin straps and tight fabric on the body.
Big steps forward in swimsuit technology came in the late 1950s when the industry began using nylon in swimsuits to create smoother and tighter models. It was also discovered about this time that one of the best characteristics of nylon is that it is almost impermeable to water. In addition to those technical aspects, the aesthetic one began to play a role. The first prints appeared in this period. The swimsuits were marked with drawn lines, stars, and colors other than black.
The biggest swim news in the 1970s was the massive use of swim caps, which became a necessary accessory. A new suit was introduced in 1976 — this technology marked the start of the compression era in swimsuits. The compression suit was worn tightly, and swimmers would go down one or two sizes from their regular fit. These suits were called papersuits due to the texture of the fabric because, when dry, they did feel like paper between the fingers.
In the ‘80s, following fitness fashion, women’s swimsuits were more high-cut than they are now on summer beaches, and Lycra was added to the nylon fabric. Lycra would remain the material used until the revolution of the 2000s.
At the end of the 20th century, the attention to swimsuits had become serious business, and the manufacturing companies promised sensational improvements thanks to the use of their products. In Barcelona 1992, 53% of the medals were won by athletes wearing the same swimsuit model: the Speedo S2000.
As the new millennium approached, the argument was that the suit should completely cover the legs. This was the first time people started to divide the market between swimsuits to be used in training and ones to be used in competition.
Michael Phelps wasn’t the only one to make a debut at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. There was also the famous Speedo Fastskin suit. Eighty-three percent of the medal winners of that Olympics were wearing a Fastskin — except Ian Thorpe and his inimitable model with long sleeves signed by Adidas.
Speedo had made the discovery that, compared to a smooth surface, the microscopic scales in a shark’s skin massively reduce drag in the water. As a result, Speedo incorporated tiny grooves and elevations, similar to those in a shark’s skin, on the surface of the suits. Speedo also coated the Lycra fabric of the swimsuit with Teflon. Due to the tight fit, the swimmer’s body became more streamlined.
In more recent times, most of us remember what happened in 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics: Speedo revolutionized the swimming world with the introduction of the LZR Racer competition swimsuit model made of a blend of nylon, Lycra and non-textile polyurethane. The addition of polyurethane made a significant difference to a swimmer’s speed in the water, increasing the buoyancy and the smoothness of the suit and reducing drag by up to 8 percent.
Images of Michael Phelps winning eight Olympic gold medals in a Stars and Stripes swimsuit bounced across screens around the world for months. The progression to pure polyurethane was an obvious step for swimwear manufacturers and, by 2009, Italian brands Arena and Jaked released competitive swimsuits made entirely of the non-textile material.
The polyurethane swimsuits made the biggest leap forward in performance in the history of competitive swimsuits with 43 world records broken at the 2009 World Championships in Rome. World governing body FINA reacted by banning the use of non-textile materials in competitive swimsuits and enforcing stricter restrictions in permeability, buoyancy, thickness, and design.
Today the swimsuit styles for competition are very different from those of 15 years ago and can only be made of fabric. For women, there are two different models, both from knees to shoulders but can be closed in the back or open. For men, the only model allowed is a short that goes from the knees to the hips, called a jammer.
We can only wonder what new styles the coming years will bring.