Beachgoers beware, this controversial piece of swimwear is back in style

Jul 13, 2023, 3:00 PM

Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen here during the 38th Cannes Film Festival in 1977.
(AFP/Getty Images)...

Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen here during the 38th Cannes Film Festival in 1977. (AFP/Getty Images)

(AFP/Getty Images)

(CNN) — After decades of banishment from mainstream wardrobes, one of fashion’s most controversial swimwear garments — the men’s swimming brief — is making a tentative return across the globe.

Some would argue the garment has never gone away. Beaches and pools in Europe (in France in particular) have long been a safe space for fans of the Speedo style, ditto Brazil. Racing briefs are also de rigeur for swimmers, water polo players, and divers, and widely embraced by the gay community.

But could budgie smugglers (as the swimming brief is known in much of the UK and Australia), be back in favor with board short-loving men too?

Speedo — the original purveyors of the much-maligned piece of skimpy swimwear — argues 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 is expecting to exceed this for 2023 (the brand says 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 mustaches, Crocs, mullet hairstyles, socks with sandals.


Men in Speedos

Smaller swimming briefs called ‘sunga’ are also a popular choice in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Lazyllama/Alamy Stock Photo)

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). Olympic diver Tom Daley and soccer stars David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. Actor Luke Evans wears them on the beach, as does singer Ricky Martin and fashion designer Giorgio Armani. 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. Longer-length Hawaiian-style swimming trunks were becoming fashionable, and the company wanted Travis to create something similar for them. But Travis had a much smaller idea.

His swimming briefs were, well, brief – available in 6.9 inches, 4.9 inches, and 3-inch widths — the greater the width, the more ‘modest’ the garment said Australian newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald. Initially, the paper reports, men tended to buy the larger width, but the second year saw buyers opt for a medium width, with the skimpier 3-inch style dominating three years after their inception. 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 had a long history of authorities trying to control what bathers wore on the beach: in 1907 a proposal that men should legally wear full-body suits with modesty skirts was fiercely protested and ultimately dismissed. Women were especially penalized for their choice of swimwear.

For decades afterward, 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 men arrested by police for indecent exposure (the charges were ultimately dropped as the briefs did not reveal pubic hair).

The entire episode was free publicity for Speedo. Sales exploded globally. Briefs were embraced across all demographics from older men 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.

Briefs reigned supreme throughout the heady days of the 1970s and 80s, but by the 90s and the advent of grunge, baggy board shorts ruled on the beach. Speedos became comic – a fancy dress costume, a relic, a joke.

It’s a perception Speedo claimed 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.”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.


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Beachgoers beware, this controversial piece of swimwear is back in style