By Mark Simpson
Alas, neither swimming nor bathing nor size-queenery survived the decline of the Roman Empire. Medieval Christianity, with its ghastly suspicion of the body, rendered water'the sensual cleanser of limbs 'suspect. As late as the 16th century, bathing was thought to be wicked, unhealthy, and, er, filthy. (Even Catholic baptism used only 'holy' water, water that had been blessed, symbolizing the cleansing blood of Christ: Sin was the deep-down dirt that Christianity was angry with.)
The English were the first to rediscover the lost art of swimming, largely as a result of their exploration of Polynesia in the 18th century, where swimming was common amongst the blissfully naked natives. By the 19th century swimming in rivers, lakes, and the sea was almost as popular in England as it had been in Rome'frequently naked, males and females, sometimes at the same time.
Christian moralists, their influence having resurged in the late 19th century, were naturally incandescent at these displays of wanton happiness. They successfully campaigned for local bylaws banning daylight bathing, or insisting on the use of 'bathing machines' that allowed the bather to enter and depart the water unseen, or requiring 'neck-to-knee' bathing costumes (New York State had such a law until as late as 1938). A typical swimming costume comprised a pair of woolen knickers extending to the knees and a sleeveless jersey. Not a good look.
To their eternal credit, it was the Australians who struck the first blow against the 19th-century phalliban. With typical Aussie obstinacy, the men of Manly Beach chose simply to disregard the pissy-prissy laws banning daytime bathing. Faced with this seaside insurrection, local authorities threw in the towel and lifted the ban in 1903. The rest of Australia followed (swim)suit, though precisely what kind of swimsuit was still contested. Many male bathers disregarded the neck-to-knee ordinances, either rolling their one-piece down to the waist or, wearing trunks, simply improvising. Good Christian folk found this intolerable. There was a strident campaign by decent, upstanding, if slightly pallid, Christians to get male bathers to wear modesty-preserving bathing 'tunics.' Protests by angry crowds of male bathers at Manly and Bondi Beach'wearing ballet skirts and sarongs'put an end to the phalliban.
So it was in Australia, a warm country where most of the population tenderly hug the coastline and pay little attention to busybodies (perhaps because Australia began as a convict colony), that the bodily freedom of the modern beach lifestyle ('surfers rather than serfs!') was invented, anticipating by decades the sexual revolution of the 1960s'giving men's packets and asses freedom of expression. It was this, not Kylie Minogue, that was their greatest contribution to world culture. Australia, a country fond of casually abbreviating English, abbreviated the male bathing 'cossie,' and with it Victorian morality.
The institution that did more to export this vision of a sandy, nicely rounded utopia than any other, smuggling millions upon millions of 'budgies,' was originally called MacRae Knitting Mills after the family who founded it in Australia in 1914. Among the first companies to produce specifically 'athletic' designs (i.e., swimming costumes that didn't double as sea anchors), MacRae changed its name to 'Speedo' in 1928 after staff member Captain Parsons coined the slogan 'Speed on in your Speedos.'
In 1955, Speedo introduced nylon into its fabric for competitive swimwear (unwittingly inventing a whole new branch of fetishism). The 1956 Melbourne Olympics provided a sensational debut for the new sheer style of brief briefs when Speedo sponsored the medal-sweeping Australian team. By the time of the 1968 Olympics and through the '76 games, almost every gold medalist swimmer wore Speedos. Naturally, men all over the globe wanted to enjoy the sensation for themselves.