Beefcake Swimwear: A visual scrapbook of vintage men's beachwear

by David Claudon



I collect vintage photographs. In the attempt to identify the time period of many of these I have to rely on the clothing styles that the people are wearing. I thought I'd find easy help online, but I wasn't. As a visual learner I want pictures to use as examples and although there are some websites that start to cover the material, I realized more might help other researchers. One of the problems of dating the photographs, of course, is that many people keep and wear the same bathing suit for many years, so while the type of suit may have been introduced in say 1940, they may still be wearing it into the 1950s.





The ambrotype at left shows three men in 1880-1890 union suit bathing suits consisting of below-knee pants and elbow-length sleeves. Contrasting color stripes run down center, at the leg and sleeve edge. The man at center wears a bathing cap to protect hair or no hair. The waistbands say "13."

The young man at right wears a similar union bathing suit.





The ambrotype at left shows two young men in 1890 bathing suits. Their two piece bathing suits consists a round-necked short-sleeve top worn with trunks a few inches above the knees. Both wear a college insignia [JC] on their top. The fabric of the two pieces is different.

The couple at right, before a painted background, wear beach suits from the 1890s. He wears a striped shirt with the initials J.W.M. His trunks are a different color with stripes.





1905 Family
at Martha's Vinyard, Maine

According to Lencek and Basker in Making Waves, the first Jentzen men's wet wool suit could weigh as much as 9 pounds and had a tendency to fall down. [34]

By the turn of the century, men were wearing woollen one and two-piece suits

The two women by the lifeguards appear to be about 1908.

At left, the tank top includes a skirt, here with darker stripe. The stripe is repeated on the trunks. The suits at center are similar in appearance to a short sleeved or no-sleeved thigh-length union suit. The rather shapeless garment could be a solid color or striped. At right are Eastern European men, circa 1910.



America, circa 1910-1920



Above two young men stand in bathing suits and caps. At center, we see a family ready for the beach about 1910. At right is beachwear at a parade.

At left two young men in the tank top bathing suits talking with a man wearing a typical 1920s summer outfit.

The two young men at right are playing "He ain't heavey he's my brother" at Long Beach.



According to Lencek and Bosker, in May 1917, the American Association of Park Superintendents published "Bathing Suit Regulations in The American City. All-white and flesh-colored suits were discouraged as anatomical details were too clear. Nothing below the armpits could be shown on the chest. Men's suits needed a skirt or skirt effect, worn outside the trunks. The leg could not be shorter than 4 inches from the knee and the skirt not shorter than two inches above the bottom of the trunks." (41)


The 1920s found the one-piece bathing suit becaming more open and becoming a two-piece belted suit as seen on the lifeguard at left. The young men at left wear two-piece suits. At right Hawaiian 1912 Olympic swimmer and surfer Duke Kahanamoku is credited with wearing tighter and more fitted suits.


Silent film star Rudolph Valentino exhibits the allure of the woolen bottom and a well developed body. Valentino's biographer Emily Leider in Dark Lover, describes how on Sundays, wearing white trunks, he walked his two white Russian wolfhounds along the beach

About 1925, an elastic, two-way stretch textile made from Latex was introduced, called Lastex.

At left Valentino appears in a scene from The Young Raja, 1922.





Many people worried about the tight two-piece bathing suit which no longer hid the man's body from view.


At right are Leonard and Pete "side by side" at Neptune Beach,
May 27, 1928

1924 Johnny Weissmuller in Paris
Another 1924 Olympic swimmer beat Kahanamoku's record. Johnny Weissmuller, later known to the public as the penultimate Tarzan of the 1930s-1940s, was signed in 1929 to model BVD swimwear.

1929 Gary Cooper [Blum 19]

Here Weissmuller and George O'Brien show early 1930s belted suits. O'Brien, a leading man of silent films and later western star, was known as "The Chest" during the 1920s

According to Lencek and Bosker, during the 1930s, the struggle was on for the men to throw away the top. In 1932, the "Topper" was created. A two-tone belted wool suit had a top which could be zippered to an atheletic supporter in the suit or left off. (70)

At left is a picture of actor Dave O'Brien wearing the topper.

By 1935, jockey bathing trunks were introduced in France. The following year, "no shirt" became a hot topic in magazines. The United Press reported topless men banned from beaches at Atlantic City, New Jersey, claiming the city officials wanted "no gorillas on our beaches.". The final concession of 1937 was that the legs could be cut short, but the navel could not be shown.(71)

1934 Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.& John Wayne & Tom Brown
[Blum 82-83]


By the 1930s, the one-piece skivvies swimsuit gave way to the belted suit with or without top, although many still wore the two-piece suits.

At right, actor Philip Reed of Warner Brothers models Jantzen's late 1930s "Streamlined Trunks." The top had disappeared, but Reed's chest is curiously lacking nipples.


Early 1930s

Ca 1932
"Provincetown Sports, 1936"
The belted trunks and tank top
On the back of the picture above is written, "July '38."


The first completely synthetic fabric was invented by DuPont in 1938. Called nylon, it was derived from coal, air, water and other substances and spun into yarn. Europeans called it polyamid and polyamide. [Bikiniscience]
The suits at right are probably European which had much less fitting than American suits by this period.
Germans at the beach



As the 1940s turned into the 1950s, the top was gone and bare chests were accepted in public.


At right, the two sailors, recouperating from action in 1943 World War II, wear boxers and little else.
A sailor in Hawaii wears the latest trimmer Jantzen while his companions take photos of the area.
At right are Bob and Art, dated September 5, 1943.

Keith and Kert
White Lake, 1 May 1948.

At right, ca. 1948
Above, a group of lifeguards all show the off-the-shoulder look.

As the 1940s ended, the trunks got lower and more fitted. Heimann's cover below right shows a 1949 Jantzen ad.

The Saturday Evening Post in 1948 carried this ad for Jantzen Lastex swim suits. "Men's trunks, the smoothest, finest-fittin in all the world, left to right . . . "Continental", wool knitted with Lastex 6.50 . . . "Water Boy", Lastex knitted ribcord 3.50 . . . "Springboard", wonderful sharkskin knitted with Lastex 3.95.




Detail from a snapshot of Billy, Ray and Max, ca 1950.
  This 1952 ad shows the "daredevil" trunks which sold for 4.95.
In the early 1950s, the cabana set [also called by Catalina the "Sports set"] became popular. That set consisted of highly patterned trunks and a matching shirt

Catalina's 1957 ad touted 'Regimentals': Authentic stripings by Catalina--in fabrics by REEVES--are marching head-long into the sun scene. ...Match shirt with any of four trunk styles.

'Regimental' shirts: $6.95

Matching trunks: $4.95 to $6.95

circa 1952



Movie stars of the 1950s and 1960s popularized the boxer swimsuit. Although most men went barechested, suits were worn high to cover the navel. Meeker's swimming brief was fairly daring for the period.

1951 Guy Madison & Farley Granger & Ralph Meeker
[Blum 258]

Fire Island, late 1950s


Above, photo dated 1958.




Teen throbs Frankie Avalon and Fabian at right, early 1960s.

Beginning in 1963, the Beach Party series of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon popularized square-cut boxers and board shorts.

As the California surfer boy became a dominate image of the 1960s, actors like Robert Conrad, of "Wild Wild West" fame, wore shorter and more fitted high-rise boxers. At left from ca 1962; at right ca 1965.

The fly-boxers of the 1960s model
from David of Cleveland could get incredibly tight as can be seen above.


In 1955 Speedo, an Australian company that had been around since 1914, introduced nylon into its fabric for competition swimwear. The string-tied bikini brief style became so popular that even similar-style garments made by different companies are today referred to as Speedoes.

In 1958, Spandex was invented and marketed in 1962 by DuPont as Lyrca.

[Note: According to the May 3, 2005, Chicago Tribune, Cape May, NJ, after 30 years, will no longer ban skin-tight, form-fitting or bikini type swimsuits. They also will allow men to go bare-chested.]

By the 1970s, modern swimwear seems to often use minimal as its watchword. The picture at right is from 1979



Written 2005, revised 2008. Pictures © 2005 David Claudon, from the collection of David Claudon. Some pictures from Daniel Blum, A Pictorial History of the Talkies. NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1958.

Now available:


Vintage photograph collectors, art directors and designers, costumers will welcome this visual sourcebook of 100 years of beefcake beachwear by C. David Claudon.

. The book 8-1/2 x 11 inch book consists of 90 pages with 170 pictures

For more information order here.