One sweltering July day in 1940, a group of young swimmers in South Boston staggered out of the surf. While lounging on the beach some lowered the swimsuit straps from their shoulders, rolling their tops to their waistlines to bask in sunshine.
Police promptly arrested them for indecent exposure. From 1910 through the 1920s, women’s swimwear altered drastically–from long full woolen dresses to tight one-piece suits–but conservatives reluctantly accepted the change and police frequently arrested young women for violating public decency laws (more on that to come).
But the swimmers arrested for being topless in 1940 were men. Surprised?
Today, we expect men to swim in some type of suit bottom–full trunks, fitted trunks, jammers, mini Speedo briefs, or high tech new compression suits (more on that to follow). Whatever the style of swimsuit, Americans accept that men will swim and sunbath topless. But, in the scope of history, our culture sanctioned shirtless swimming for men a relatively short time ago.
Los Angeles rescinded its ordinance against shirtless swimsuits in 1929 and the Vogue ad illustrates how men rolled the tops of one-piece suits to expose their backs and chests. But most US cities retained and enforced rules prohibiting men from being topless in public—even lying face down on the beach.
Initially in America, men–like women–wore heavy swimsuits made from wool or flannel—materials known to insulate from cold. Most women sewed or knitted swimsuits for themselves and their families from patterns published in magazines. A typical men’s swimsuit required six hanks of yarn–more than many contemporary sweaters.
In 1913, members of the Portland (Oregon) Rowing Club complained to John A. Zehntbauer and Carl Jantzen, the owners of the Portland Knitting Company (PKC), that their homemade suits felt too heavy and fitted poorly. They inquired if PKC could create a snug and stretchy swimsuit–mimicking the one-piece suits worn by Olympians and serious competitive swimmers like Leo “Bud” Goodwin and Charlie M. Daniels.
Both swimmers were legendary sports figures and heroes of the era. After the 1908 Games, Daniels held the highest number of Olympic medals won by an American in swimming until Mark Spitz in 1972. Young men idolized him and hoped to imitate him–if not in swimming, at least in style and confidence.
Zehntbauer and Jantzen developed a one-piece suit knitted with lighter-weight wool in a tight rib stitch that provided elasticity, allowing the suit mold to the body and conform to movement. The suits became popular locally–men reported swimming faster which bolstered confidence–so PKC expanded sales nationwide. In 1918, the company changed its name to Janzten and began manufacturing new form-fitting swimsuits for women as well.
Men continued to wear one-piece swimsuits throughout the 1920s. But Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller helped to forever alter styles of men’s swimwear and social norms in the 1930s. Following his Olympic career, Weissmuller starred with Esther Williams in Billy Rose’s Aquacade. In 1932 he began a long career starring as Tarzan in Hollywood films. He also became the celebrity endorser for B.V.D. swimwear.
Seen as an icon of masculine virility, Weissmuller was wildly popular with women who flocked to see his films and stare appreciatively at his muscular physique. Men, too, favored his films. The primitive and powerful masculinity Tarzan embodied reinforced traditional gender roles—reassuring to a society in flux.
B.V.D. featured Weismsuller in a series of advertisements for their new trunks with the tagline: “B.V.D. swimsuits… improve your stroke . . .and your morale!” The trunks, called “Samoan briefs,” didn’t sell well instantly, perhaps because laws prohibited men from wearing the trunks in public.
But advertising research revealed that men wanted to copy Weissmuller’s style and swagger. The average man might never resemble him physically, but he could purchase a B.V.D. swimsuit and–ads insinuated–purchase a piece of confidence by boldly sporting the new style. Realizing that conservatives needed to be persuaded to accept the suit, B.V.D. ads underscored Weissmuller’s athleticism to help legitimize its new trunks. Ads stressed that trunks “were designed under the supervision of no less an expert than Johnny Weismuller. They have an exactness of fit and proportion that makes for speedy, effortless swimming.” As Weissmuller’s fame spread, so did cultural acceptance of the standalone trunks—especially in California.
Outside of Hollywood, men continued to be arrested for wearing shirtless suits on public beaches. In Boston, New York and Chicago, women often complained in editorials about the new shirtless trunks for men. Curiously, women weren’t affronted by male nudity but by the appearance of men’s bodies. Accustomed to seeing Johnny Weissmuller’s smooth, tanned chest and lean, muscular physique, women criticized that real men were “anything but handsome with their hairy spindle-shank legs” and chests.
When New York’s municipal beaches allowed shirtless bathing for the first time in 1936, the decision provoked heated protest from women’s groups who told reporters they “had no desire to gaze upon hairy chested men.” As a culture, we tend to think of beauty standards as applying primarily to women, but as the protests vocalized by groups of women in cities across the US reveal, men are not exempt. And as the publicity photo of Weissmuller and O’Brien illustrates, Hollywood highlighted male physicality and sexuality. However, as a whole, cultural norms do not condition men to associate their self-worth with their appearance.
Beauty pageants like Miss America and Hollywood’s bathing beauty films fused the cultural association between swimsuits and beauty for women by presenting women as docile objects to be admired or evaluated. Hollywood films like the Tarzan series, in contrast, subtly associated the exposure of men’s bodies with heroism, action, and masculine power.
This is not to say that men don’t suffer from insecurity about their bodies but to suggest that advertising and popular films historically used swimsuits to reinforce traditional gender roles. Bathing suit-clad women became passive pinups whereas men in swimming trunks symbolized strength. By the end of the 1940s, the American public embraced shirtless swimming for men. As a young man, my grandfather sported swim trunks at Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, in 1956, reflecting a cultural norm. Even the playful pose–flexing his biceps–reflects a larger association between swimsuits and confident action for men.
To be continued.