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A brief history of the tensions between swimsuits, skin and speed

In selecting my children’s swimsuits, I have to admit that a lot of the things I considered were tied to making my own life easier. A warmer suit for the winter time mattered, but having it be easy to get on and off was also important. My son may love the sharks on his trunks, but the fact that his swim shirt means we can skip putting sunscreen on his torso is great. World-class swimmers may be concerned with some of these things as well, but for a number of years swimsuits have been an arena of intense technological development, all to make the human body a little better at moving through the water. It’s unclear why this seems to preclude nice unicorn patterns on the bodices, but in the world of record-breaking, maybe appearances have become the last detail anyone thinks about.

Revealing skin to break records

Appearances were, of course, basically the only thing on people’s minds when swimming costumes were first becoming widely available around 1900. Made from baggy wool, these bulky shirts and trousers soaked up water and probably made swimmers just want to get out of the pool. Athletes struggled in the heavy garments until 1927 when the company that would become Speedo created the Racerback, which was form-fitting and left shoulders and backs exposed so that people could actually move their arms. It caused quite a stir, but competitive swimmers loved how much faster they could move. World records began falling by the 1932 Olympics, even if the rest of the world wasn’t ready to see these suits on non-Olympians.

As standards shifted, swimsuits kept pushing the envelope in the name of performance. Men were able to swim topless in the 1936 Olympics for the first time. The bikini debuted in 1946, although nobody claimed it was to make swimmers faster. In the 1972 Olympics, East German swimmers shocked fans with suits that became translucent when wet, but shocked other swimmers when the team won 10 of their 14 races that year. Since skin was tied to speed, it seemed to be excusable as long as a swimmer went faster.

Your skin is too slow

The next age of swimsuit development sort of reversed course a little bit. Skin was still important, but swimsuits wanted to cover human skin with what was supposed to function like synthetic shark skin. Sharks are covered in tooth-like structures called denticles, and so the suits were covered in little V-shaped bumps to try to fight drag in the water. This meant that swimmers were covering up again, and by the 2000 Olympics, 13 out of 15 new swimming records were made by someone wearing the so-called “Fastskin” suits. While the faux-shark-skin suits would later be proven to be technically ineffective, it didn’t matter because by 2008 swimsuits were instead being coated in sections of smooth polyurethane to slip through the water that much faster.

The polyurethane panels were very successful, but also expensive and finicky. They actually helped swimmers by trapping air against the swimmer’s body, making them more buoyant so they spent more time pushing through air, rather than the more resistant water. Swimmers were going so fast that breaking records started to feel insignificant. What’s more, these suits were expensive but not durable, which meant they were only practical for a select group of wealthier swim programs, which made those world records seem tied to the swimsuits more than the swimmers.

Reducing swimsuits’ role in swimming

So in the most recent swing of our swimsuit pendulum, the polyurethane suits are now banned from major competitions like the Olympics. What’s more, new rules state that suits can’t go below the knee, or cover too much of the torso. It’s not exactly a return to the hyper-modest suits of the past, but it taking us back to the idea that there’s a human body doing the swimming underneath the gear.

My second-grader asked: Why did bathing suits have to cover you up so much if people could see your back or shoulders in other clothes?

Western fashion around 1900 didn’t actually show off shoulders, backs or thighs. At that point in time, people were more covered up in general, and the closest thing to a modern t-shirt was used only as an undergarment. The best way to expose the shape of one’s figure at that time was, weirdly, to wear a corset.

Source: Winning Skin by Jacob Roberts, Distillations

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