Daniel asked: I was just wondering, I know what ladies used during the ’30s-40s (swimming suits). But what did the men use?
Let’s take a brief look at vintage men’s swimsuits by decade:
(scroll to the end to shop for vintage retro swim trunks).
1930s Vintage Men’s Swimsuits
While the men’s 1920s swimsuit was a one-piece tank top and shorts, the 1930s embraced the change to swim briefs. The strong, ideal Superman body of the 1930s made a man’s torso something to show off at the pool or beach. Short swim shorts made that happen. Most were made of wool knit that was roomy around the front but snug at the leg holes and backside.
Wide horizontal stripe tops were common in colors of brown and yellow, yellow and blue, red and tan, black and gold, blue and white, and green and gray. Solid of colors of blue or black were the most common bottoms. A white cotton belt with metal clasp held the shorts in place. As the decade progressed, short became shorter into a high-waisted brief and fit with a little less room in the front.
Knit “tops” were often sold with shorts to provide a bit more modesty but they were hardly a coverup. They look like the tank tops of 20s swimsuits or modern day wrestling uniforms called “crab backs”. The “twosome” suits zipped or buttoned into place giving the look of a one-piece swimsuit.
When not swimming men would wear a coordinating polo shirt around the pool or resort. Flannel and terry cloth short robes were another throw over option. They could be solid colors, horizontal wide stripes or tropical prints.
1940s Vintage Men’s Swimsuits
In the 1940s men’s swim briefs continued to be the trend at the beach or pool. Many were simply made of rib-knit wool. However, rayon ‘Lastex’ fabric, which utilized spandex for a stretch (and dried much faster than wool!), was coming into use, eventually replacing wool and cotton altogether. They were very high in the waist and had low-cut legs as well. Some were worn with belts others had an elastic waistband.
Colors were usually dark – navy, hunter green, blue, and maroon. Some had a little patch or zippered pocket on the front and a thin fabric belt. In the later years brighter colors such as yellow, red, and even white were adding to the mix.
Swim trunks were rising in popularity during the ‘40s. The shorts were made with cotton and had an elastic waist. They were also worn with a high waist and were cut straight, coming to mid-thigh. Trunks were usually in the same colors as briefs but were also made in loud tropical prints. They were worn with a matching short-sleeved button-up shirt.
1950s Vintage Men’s Swimsuits
In the 1950s, brief swim shorts were still in fashion. The brief then grew legs and dropped the waistband to just below the belly button (still very high by today’s standards.) Leg lengths extended down a few inches or down to the knee. The idea was they looked like men’s walking shorts so that they would be worn with a matching shirt at any beachside resort and not be under-dressed. The shorts were pleated on the side so the fit offered more leg room. Some had zipped flys, but most had elastic waistbands. All bright colors and tropical prints were trendy.
Oddly enough Americans were behind the time in men’s swim fashion. Beachside rules kept men in modest swimwear while European, Hawaiian and Carribean cultures embraced the bikini. It was a 1930s style tight brief with a high cut leg. The “speedo” of the 1950s. In American, few men choose those suit except gay men. Elsewhere they were considered normal for every man.
As a cover-up matching cabana shirts continued to be sold with swim trunks. These tropically themed, plaid, striped or novelty print sport shirts gave men an opportunity to leave their grey flannel suits at the office and enjoy life in more color at the beach.
1960s Men’s Swimwear
There was a lack of innovation in men’s swim trunks of the 1960s. The waistline lowered a bit to a hip hugger rise while knits replaced loose shorts for an oh-so-snug fit. Leg lengths also rose up a little and tightened around the upper thigh. Bright mod or psychedelic colors matched those of the ladies.
Cabana shirts continued to be even more commonplace in the 1960s. Cabana jackets too were offered as an easier option to zip up over-tanned bodies.
The new trend in California was the surfer’s swim shorts. They had long loose legs and an elastic waistband with a string tie. They were the beginning of the classic “board shorts.” Bright solid colors, horizontal stripes, and tropical/Hawaiian prints decorated the beaches.
1970s Mens Swimsuits
While the men’s bikini, unitard and thong made editorial news in the 1970s most men still preferred basic solid color boxer or brief style swimsuit. Many bathing suit styles flashed back to the 1950s with a button waistband or the 1960s with boxers. The newest design was an elastic band boxer with tulip side leg shaping and outlined in white or contrast piping. These swim shorts were marketed as athletic shorts that could go for a run on the beach into the water and onto the tennis court.
Buy vintage style men’s swimwear
If you don’t want to wear genuine vintage swimsuits (wool=itchy), there are some options for new, vintage inspired swim trunks. The current styles favor the 60s and 70s with boxer style shorts. A few brands are making short shorts with button waistbands instead of a drawstring. Sadly, almost no one is making high waisted 30s to 50s swimming trunks.
For 1920s and 1930s one-piece swimsuits, consider a singlet (wrestling suit) instead. You could also pair a long tank top with biking or yoga shorts together for a two-piece look. You could attach them together with snaps to keep the top from floating up in the pool.
Most modern swim trunks could work for a ’50s look if you remove the drawstring. The better choices have a fitted waistband instead of elastic. Look for fun retro prints or classic solid colors with matching cabana shirts (they are back!)
Here are some options for 1920s to 1970s styles: