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The history of competitive swimwear

One of the biggest changes in competitive swimming since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 has been in swimwear. Read on for a brief history of competitive swimwear.

At the early stagings of the Games, men and women used to wear one-piece swimsuits made of wool, fully covering their bodies from hips to shoulders.

In 1928, the first real breakthrough in the history of competitive swimwear was made with the introduction of the racerback swimsuit by Speedo – then known as Fortitude – which allowed a greater movement in the arms.

Swedish swimmer Arne Borg was one of the first to bring the racerback to prominence in the late 1920s, winning Olympic gold over 1,500m Freestyle at the Amsterdam Olympic Games in 1928 and breaking multiple world records over the next few years.

Australian 16-year old Clare Dennis wore a Speedo racerback made of silk at the 1932 Olympics, winning 200m Breaststroke gold in a world record and causing controversy for showing her exposed shoulders in the swimsuit.

The idea of men swimming bare-chested was introduced by a new swim shorts design at the 1936 Olympics and the success of this style of trunks saw the development of men’s competitive swimsuits focused on using as little material as possible.

The 1950s saw an important step in the history of competitive swimwear with the use of nylon, a stronger and smoother fabric which reduced water resistance.

Swimsuits made of nylon or a blend of nylon and lycra became the norm in the second half of the 20th Century as the development of faster swimwear gathered pace.

Manufacturers created full-body swimsuits for both men and women, with only a swimmer’s arms, head and feet uncovered to reduce drag.

History of Competitive Swimwear: Non-Textiles

Swimsuit design took centre stage again in the early 21st Century with the introduction of the Speedo FASTSKIN suit which was designed to mimic a shark skin and create a more streamlined body in the water.

At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, 13 of the 15 world records broken were in FASTSKIN swimsuits while four years later in Athens, Michael Phelps won six gold medals using the second generation of the FASTSKIN design.

Speedo launched another new design in time for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, the LZR Racer swimsuit made of a blend of nylon, lycra and the non-textile polyurethane.

The addition of polyurethane made a significant difference to a swimmer’s speed in the water, increasing the buoyancy and the smoothness of the suit and reducing drag by up to eight per cent.

The progression to pure polyurethane was an obvious step for swimwear manufacturers and by 2009, Arena and Jaked released competitive swimsuits made entirely of the non-textile material.

The polyurethane swimsuits had made the biggest leap forward in performance in the history of competitive swimsuits with 43 world records broken at the 2009 World Championships in Rome.

World governing body FINA reacted by banning the use of non-textile materials in competitive swimsuits and enforcing stricter restrictions in permeability, buoyancy, thickness and design.

Click here to read more about the history of the competitive swimsuit on the Speedo website.