A few days ago my daughter reeled in horror and scolded me fiercely as I emerged from the water at the beach in a pair of relatively modest European-style swimmers that revealed no more than a pair of “boy-leg” undies or snug boxer shorts would. Hardly revealing! In my daughter’s world men wear board shorts! She was horrified.
When I pleaded for some tolerance and explained that what I was wearing was far more modest than what she was wearing she retorted that “she was a girl… that is different”. Apparently, it is now common etiquette that men should wear full cover-up but women can wear… well anything. When did this new model of public decency emerge? I can remember a time when men wore almost nothing and it was women who had to fight the good fight for comfort and freedom of fashion choices on the beach. Take a good look around next time you are down at the beach or at the pool and note what the current rules of popular culture inflict upon us. Plenty of women have absolutely no problem with revealing three quarters of their buttocks through wearing bikini bottoms cut high at the back. Others reveal the entire bum crack through wearing a thong or G-string. Bikini bottoms with ultra-low fronts are made possible by the invention of the Brazilian wax-job. Some bikini bottoms consist of two tiny triangles attached by pieces of string at either side. Then there is the “Wicked Wiesel” creation… i.e. a G-string or tiny string bikini made out of a transparent fabric.
While revealing beach-wear existed in the seventies and eighties the difference was that women in those times wore those garments as an iconoclastic statement. Women knew that they were being radical… they were making a statement against a set of puritanical and outmoded values that they rejected. Showing flesh was women poking their tongues out at the establishment and telling everyone who cared to look that they would wear precisely what they wanted to wear. Wearing very little on the beach today is not so much a statement of freedom or radicalism. It is the norm. Many women are willing to wear swimwear that leaves little to the imagination because that is what makes them comfortable and makes them feel good and look good.
Well that is all quite okay with me. I think that these outfits look good, too. I also think that an individual should be allowed to wear whatever they like. People should be able to wear whatever they feel comfortable in. I wouldn’t even mind if people chose to go back to the bathing naked days! For women it seems that being comfortable, looking good and wearing whatever you want is perfectly fine in 2016. So how come there are strict rules in popular culture as to what is okay for a bloke to wear? When did the male prude… and his female friend who insists on full cover up in her male counterpart emerge? It’s weird!
If a modern male wears Speedos, or something similar, he is sneered at as being a “clubbie” or a bogan. The Speedo nickname of “budgie-smuggler” was actually funny when it was first used around thirty years ago. Now that it is used as a universal descriptive of any swimsuit that reveals more than board-shorts it has become about as witty as the “Aussie… Aussie… Aussie… oi… oi… oi” cheer. Despite the hackneyed nature of the term even supposedly sophisticated observers such as A.B.C. journalists gleefully talk about “budgie-smugglers” and their wearers with a faux titter. A wearer of “budgie-smugglers” is always considered by those who use the term as a dag or a bogan. The former Prime Minster still struggles to understand why his opinion polls were always poor. Anyone with half a brain would be able to tell him that it was his Speedos.
On the other hand, if an Australian male wears a swimsuit that is styled in a European or South American manner the wearer is simply assumed to be gay or a foreigner. The rule in Australian fashion culture is that straight males must wear either neck to ankle or neck to knee cover up (in the form of a wet suit) or a waist to knee board-short (in cases where the male is courageous enough to bare his chest.) The fact that the wearer may never have set foot on a surf board in his life doesn’t seem to make any difference at all. What was developed in the sixties and evolved in the seventies as a pragmatic garment to perform the multiple roles of protecting one’s legs (and leg hairs) from board wax and chafing, to help stop the surfer from slipping and sliding around on the board and to protect the surfer’s swimming costume has become the only acceptable form of male swimwear.
Initially, this obsession with board shorts came out of surfing’s emergence from its position as a deviant, dangerous and subversive sub-culture into the dominant driver of popular culture in Australia and large parts of America and Europe in the eighties. Surf style dominated. Even towns hundreds of miles from surfing beaches had their own Quicksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl outlets which dressed locals in the latest surf gear so that they could look cool down at the local Olympic pool, swim centre, dam or creek. The fact that board shorts were uncomfortable to swim in and looked kind of goofy didn’t bother anyone. Thirty years later, despite changes in technology in board short materials and styles the same still applies. Boardies are still uncomfortable to swim in and they still look kooky… but nearly everyone still wears them… whether they surf or not.
The determination to wear boardies and only boardies sometimes reaches extremes. The other day, while getting changed at the local pool before swimming laps, I couldn’t help noticing a bloke in the change room changing from his wearing-around-the-street board shorts into his swimming-laps board shorts before heading out to the pool to start his swim. I suppose the bloke would have had a separate pair of board shorts for surfing too, if he does actually surf. And possibly a black pair, as well, to wear to formal dinners.
It is an odd quirk of history that while women were initially making a radical statement through insisting on wearing less and less, men were moving in the other direction. Men who were moving away from wearing swim briefs and speedos to the ubiquitous board short may initially have been a fashion move but in recent years it has become a form of twenty-first century prudery. I challenge you. Ask your kids why it is impolite for men to wear brief swimmers in public. If they are honest they will admit because “budgie-smugglers” actually show the outline or shape of your dicky bird. It took some serious interrogation but I finally got my kids to admit this to me.
“So what…” you might respond. “Well you just can’t do that”, will be their reply. It is okay for woman to reveal the hair-deprived top half of their pubic bone. It is fine for women to show two-thirds of their bums. It is just fine for tissue thin fabric to reveal every aspect of female anatomy. For men, however, to wear a garment that shows a bulge where their penis resides is totally unacceptable. This, I really don’t get. How did it happen?
Over a century ago when bathing fanatics first escaped from the clutches of Victorian prudery and were throwing themselves into the ocean, harbour or one of the hundreds of public baths springing up in late nineteenth century urban centres, Australia’s swimmers had a love affair with nudity and the feeling of freedom it bestowed. While ocean and harbour bathing in daylight hours was banned, in the early hours of the morning or late afternoon, keen bathers loved to cavort and frolic in the soothing waters in a natural state. The same applied all day at the public baths where segregated swimming sessions allowed men, women, boys and girls to become accustomed to nudity in a crowded space… but only in the name of good sport and a healthy lifestyle. A few decades later, when surf swimmers finally won the right to ocean bath in daylight hours, they gave way to pressure from the wowser set and agreed to cover their bodies (with heavy woollen neck to knee swimming costumes) so that they could enjoy their wonderful surfing-beaches and pristine harbour beaches without interruption.
As each decade passed, however, surfers and ocean swimmers chipped away at prudish beliefs about the evils of the unclad body, bit by bit. Neck to knee woollen bathing suits were heavy, dangerous, uncomfortable and ugly. Just as concerning for the first surfers and ocean bathers was the fact that bathing was very much about the sense of freedom that the activity bestowed. Being weighed down and uncomfortable defeated the purpose of the bathing experience. So, over time, the forces of fashion (people wanted to look good and show off their healthy bodies), comfort and good old common sense gradually won the day until that point in the sixties when bikinis (for women) and speedos (for men) were finally considered acceptable.
Women entered the hippy seventies by gleefully diminishing the size of their bikini bottoms and, often, throwing away their tops all together. Men, while continuing to enjoy their swimming trunks, were beginning to adopt the board short. As the decades continued, while women grew bolder… their men went to water. Few men today (with the exception of surf club members over forty) dare to show their thighs and dicky bird outline in public.
One would think that this fashion rule would be dropped down at the pool when men are swimming laps for fitness or training reasons. After all, in the pool, boardies are not only dumb-looking… they are heavy, create drag, are as uncomfortable as hell and they can even leave you with crotch and thigh chafe marks. They just don’t make sense at all. While it’s true that young competitive swimmers are tolerated for wearing swimming briefs while training, anyone over the age of forty daring to wear anything less than boardies is considered aberrant… dodgy even.
Well, you know what? I don’t care. I swim laps at the pool nearly every day and I see blokes going up and down the pool in their “lap-swimming” boardies with material flapping around their knees and I am not jealous of their good fashion sense one little bit. I am more than happy to be a dag… or a yobbo… or a bogan… or a clubbie… or gay… or a dodgy character if that’s what I must be.
Doug mac says
Thank you for this essay and your insights.
I am in complete agreement with what you have written.
Board shorts look so trendy. Great blog…