After decades of banishment from mainstream wardrobes, one of fashion’s most divisive garments — the men’s swimming brief — is making a tentative return across the globe.
Some people would say that the garment is still around. Fans of Speedos have been enjoying the beach and pool in Europe for years (especially in France). Swimming, water polo, divers and gays all wear racing briefs.
Can board short-loving guys also embrace the budgiesmugglers?
Speedo — the original purveyors of the much-maligned piece of skimpy swimwear — argue yes, reporting that in 2023, sales and orders across Europe, the Middle East and Africa are up by over 200% compared with 2022. Meanwhile in the US, the brand reports a 54% sales increase from 2020 to 2021 and are expecting to exceed this for 2023 (the brand say data for 2022 isn’t accurate due to logistical changes that year).
The garment’s resurgence could be down to a wider movement towards shorter short proportions in men’s fashion more broadly said Stephen Doig, Men’s Style Editor at British newspaper The Telegraph. “The rise of the short short has been seen at Prada and Dior — so perhaps micro swim shorts are a natural progression,” he said, adding that men’s swimwear is a “booming” market.
“There’s a huge variety of choice and design nous with regards to men’s trunks now,” Doig said, which “makes it surprising to see a return of this throwback.”
In an email interview with CNN, Kirsty Saddler, Speedo’s Vice President of Global Brand Marketing, deemed the Speedo brief “classic, iconic, and known around the world,” and added, “they’re also very practical and the lightest and most comfortable item to wear when swimming.”
Other commentators put the renewed interest in the look down to the ongoing prevalence of ironic style — see moustaches, Crocs, mullet hairstyles, socks with sandals.
In recent years, the swimwear’s cultural cache has been raised by a roster of celebrity fans. Daniel Craig as James Bond in “Casino Royale” (2006). Tom Daley is an Olympic diver, as are soccer stars David Beckham & Cristiano Ronaldo. Luke Evans, Ricky Martin, and Giorgio Armani all wear them to the beach. Actor Zac Efron showed off a stars and stripes “freedom” pair during a commercial in the 2017 Superbowl and movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a devotee for multiple decades.
Speedo’s swimming brief — so famous it has become the byword to describe all pieces in the style — was the most famous creation of Australian artist and designer Peter Travis, who also worked as a potter, kite-maker and lecturer in ceramics.
Travis joined Speedo in 1959, at a time when men wore shorts on the beach — or perhaps a cabana suit: boxer shorts with a matching shirt. Travis was asked to create something like this for the company, as longer Hawaiian-style swimming shorts became fashionable. But Travis had much smaller idea.
His swimming briefs were, well, brief – available in 17.5cm (6.9 inches), 12.5cm (4.9 inches) and 7.5cm (3 inch) widths — the greater the width, the more ‘modest’ the garment said Australian newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that initially, men preferred the wider width. However, in the second year, buyers opted for the medium width. Three years later, the skimpier style 7.5cm was the most popular. Travis said his briefs weren’t designed to titillate or make a fashion statement (their racy perception was simply, he said, “a bonus”), as an avid surfer, Travis said the garment was simply a functional piece of kit to make movement easier for those in the water.
Not everyone was happy. Australia has a long tradition of trying to regulate what bathers wear on the beach. In 1907, a proposal that allowed men to wear modest skirts and full body suits was strongly protested. Women were punished for choosing swimwear.
For decades afterwards, tape-measure wielding inspectors patrolled beaches on the lookout for anyone wearing risqué swimsuits — and similar scenes played out on some US beaches too, particularly throughout the 1920s. In 1961, when Speedos were first worn on Sydney’s Bondi Beach, their scantiness raised eyebrows, dropped jaws and even saw arrested by police for indecent exposure (the charges were ultimately dropped as the briefs did not reveal pubic hair).
Speedo was able to benefit from free publicity. Global sales exploded. The briefs became popular with all age groups from older men up to Olympic Athletes. At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, 27 of the 29 gold medallists in the pool wore Speedo swimwear, many of which were the brand’s small briefs style.
During the heady 70s and 80s, briefs were the most popular, but with the arrival of grunge in the 90s, baggy shorts took over the beach. Speedos became comic – a fancy dress costume, a relic, a joke.
It’s a perception Speedo claim is not universal. “In Australia for example, the brief is one of our bestselling styles,” Saddler said, arguing their resurgence could be down to the fact they’re a versatile style which works for all ages. “A classic black brief works well on the mature man in St. Tropez, while a neon print brief works to party on the beach in Ibiza,” she added.
And while Fastskin-style suits may now be standard for high-level swimming competitions, “many elite and club swimmers opt to wear briefs during training sessions as they’re incredibly comfortable,” Saddler said, citing the likes of Olympic champions Caeleb Dressel of the USA and Britain’s Adam Peaty.
“There is a simplicity in just opting for a basic pair of briefs instead of fancier varieties of swimwear,” said Doig. “I don’t think it’s necessarily about having a body beautiful; there’s a certain machismo majesty to the garment (even when worn by a fuller figured guy). But if you’re going to wear them, you have to really own it.”