In 2007 I picked up some new swimming trunks in a sale and became the proud owner of a pair of blue Speedos with a go-faster white stripe. Not real Speedos I have to confess just a pair of replicas. There were a number of good reasons for this, I was backpacking so they were nice and light, they dry out quickly when you get out of the sea or the swimming pool and they are much better than shorts for getting a sun tan. Naturally I packed them and took them with me to Spain but once there I was subjected to a hurtful campaign of persistent ridicule and humiliation by my travelling companions.
Speedo originated in 1914 under the brand name ‘Fortitude‘ and it didn’t become known by its now famous brand name until 1928. The company was started by a young Scot called Alexander MacRae, who migrated to Australia in 1910, and set up an underwear manufacture business called MacRae Hosiery manufacturers. MacRae was an astute businessman and in response to the growing beach culture in Australia, he quickly expanded his operations to include swimwear and introduced the classic figure-hugging “Racerback” costume that permitted greater freedom of movement and allowed wearers to swim faster. This inspired a staff member to invent the slogan ‘Speed on in your Speedos‘ in a company competition and the Speedo name was adopted.
Four years later at the the 1936 Berlin Games the Australian swimming team all wore Speedo for the first time and after the Second-World-War Speedo quickly established itself, even opening a new factory to cope with increased demand for swimsuits including the bikini. Two-piece swimsuits for women had first appeared just before the war, but were not yet commonly regarded as decent and in fact the Speedo bikini was at first banned by Australian beach inspectors! I digress here but isn’t being a beach inspector in Australia one of the best possible jobs in the World?
Speedos were good for sport and the Mexico Olympics of 1968 saw some brilliant performances, with 27 of the 29 gold medallists wearing the brand and in addition 22 out of the 23 world records set at the Games went to swimmers wearing Speedo. At the Munich Olympics of 1972 21 out of the 22 world records were broken by swimmers wearing Speedo and 52 out of the 58 nations competing in the pool were wearing them. In 2008 in its eightieth year, Speedo launched the fastest and most technically advanced swimsuit in the world and at the ninth World Swimming Championships in April, 35 World records were broken in the swimwear. On 17th August Michael Phelps won his eight gold medal wearing Speedos! This swim suit is so good that some people have challenged whether it is fair but that sounds like sour grapes to me.
Aesthetically, Speedos for men are associated with energy and fitness, speed and grace, but admittedly they are not entirely suitable for less athletic body types that include those that are overweight, those that are wrinkling or sunburnt or those in the throes of a mid-life crisis. On the other hand for those of us like me that are in peak physical condition they are perfect for the beach and that’s why I like to wear them when going on holiday or visiting the pool.
The fashionability of speedos varies greatly in different parts of the world. They are commonly worn by men of all ages in regions such as Asia, Australia, South America and mainland Europe and in China and Japan men almost exclusively wear speedos as swimwear. In some countries, speedo-style briefs are often compulsory in public or resort swimming pools, in France for example it is common to see “slip de bain obligatoire, shorts interdits” or “swimming briefs required, no shorts allowed” because this is considered to be a matter of hygiene and public health, as shorts which might have been worn as streetwear prior to entering the pool may be dirty and pollute the water.
It’s a strange thing that the French, who as a Nation are unlikely to win any prizes for personal hygiene get almost hysterical about observing excessive standards at the lido. The Los Angeles Times once reported the shocking results of a series of polls and studies that over 50% of French men and women do not take a bath or shower daily and 40% of men and 25% of women don’t change their underwear daily. What’s more, 50% of men and 30% of women don’t use deodorant. All of this strikes me as being a bit hypocritical and once in France I went to a thalassotherapy swimming pool at an Ibis hotel at Chatelaillon Plage, near La Rochelle on the west coast, but the list of hygiene regulations was so excessive and absurdly expensive to conform with that I decided against it and went to the beach instead.
In contrast to Europe, more modest styles are the most common swimsuit style for men in the United States and Canada where the speedo is seen as too revealing, unfashionable on some people or associated with homosexuality (how very dare they!) and one of the most common American fashion complaints is that Speedos are worn by “the wrong people.” A lot of the fashion preference in this region appears to be the result of the negative stereotypical image of the overweight, elderly, and excessively hairy European walking on the beach in a speedo-styled suit. I’ve been to America. they obviously don’t have mirrors there. In the USA 31% of the population are obese and therefore unsuitable for Speedos compared with only about 15% in Europe. Ok, we (the UK) at 23% bring the average up a bit but that’s beside the point.
In Australia the home of the Speedo swimsuit and, at 22%, the third fattest people in the World, a recent store sales estimate indicated that Speedos are the preferred swimsuit for men where they are often referred to as “budgie smugglers” or “banana hammocks” beating out boardshorts (known as “boardies“) by 3 to 2. And only the Aussies could come up with descriptive names like that!