Andrew Maxin and his boyfriend Mark Waier were gearing up for a cruise in 2012 when the former had a bright idea: to craft some new swimwear for his partner to don on deck.
The graphic designer considered a slim, short pair of swim trunks, but decided to go bolder, using a brief cut with short seams on the hips to accentuate Waier’s cut figure, and a colorful pattern with a tropical vibe to make it pop. While the couple liked the look, they didn’t anticipate the reaction on the boat. It was more than glances or stares — people were fascinated by the briefs, with many asking where they bought them. “Even the staff of the boat was saying they wanted us to walk around in the briefs for a promo video,” Maxin recalls. “Mark’s a former model, so I decided to start making more designs and using him to test for fit. It was a lot easier than I expected, and our initial capsule collection of briefs grew and grew.”
Vanwolff, his subsequent swimwear brand, continues to thrive today, with multiple lines of briefs, trunks, shorts and underwear. Surprisingly, the bestseller is the briefs, aka the Speedo cut, Maxin tells me. It’s also the most popular cut for fashion features in magazines, despite the fact that the cultural milieu in the U.S. still views the Speedo as a punchline, whether it be in TV and film (often to signify an exotic man who can steal your girl), parody internet videos, rude BuzzFeed listicles and beyond. Often, the Speedo is depicted as a deeply uncomfortable thing for men to dare to try. You think you’re brave, huh?, such depictions seem to ask. Are you brave and weird enough for a Speedo?
“In an age where body shaming of the male form remains high, this is a niche market,” Maxin notes. “Men who wear our briefs are making a statement about their confidence. Still, in L.A. where we’re based, it’s still a double-edge sword with a big contrast from the people who are naysayers or think briefs are only for the gay crowd.”
The origin story of tiny briefs suggests they were always meant to be equal parts practicality and flash. The original nylon Speedo brief was a larger cut that debuted in 1955 and caught attention in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, where the Aussie swim team dominated in their Speedos and won eight gold medals.
The real revolution, however, began in 1961, when Sydney fashion student Peter Travis unveiled a much smaller, colorful lineup of briefs as the “Golden Sands Collection” in the Speedo catalogue. These new briefs sat on the hip, not at the waist, and were so small that the first man to wear one on Bondi Beach was allegedly stopped by a beach inspector. (He wasn’t fined as there was “no pubic hair showing,” according to Travis.) “The hips are stable. It isn’t like tying something around the stomach,” an 80-year-old Travis noted to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2008. “If you lift your leg up at right angles, that is the shape of the way it is cut.”
Since then, the tiny nylon swim brief has become ubiquitous around the world. What’s strange is America’s deep disconnect with a number of other Western nations, notably in Europe, where Speedos are a common sight on all sorts of male bodies of varying ages. Wearing the cut isn’t just tolerated there, but encouraged. Many public pools in France, for instance, ban boardshorts in favor of Speedos for “hygienic reasons,” claiming baggy shorts can drag dirt and objects into the water. Tiny briefs speckle the beaches of the French Riviera, too, where a man wearing baggy shorts is more likely to get odd looks than a man who’s comfortable in his briefs.
Exactly why Americans tend to be prudish about the Speedo cut remains up in the air, though most people point to the obvious: Blaming our Puritan roots and the cultural instinct to sexualize anything that reveals skin. The 20th century also was a time of anti-gay panics in the U.S., with local politicians and religious figures working to ban activities or behaviors that could be portrayed as “gay.” That tactic took many forms, but here’s the one most closely related to the topic at hand: In 1960, city councilmen in Cape May, New Jersey, erected a sign on the beach declaring, “PROHIBITED: the wearing of skintight form-fitting or bikini-type apparel or bathing suits by males over 12 yrs. age.” (It’s no coincidence that Cape May was a known hub for gay men.)
Connecting a type of swimwear to insecurities about sexuality has had long-lasting effects, even on me. I swam competitively in middle and high school in Hawaii, and I never considered wearing a Speedo in the pool. I stuck with knee-length, skin-tight jammers, partly because I didn’t think a Speedo was necessary, but mostly, because I was terrified of being roasted by my friends once they saw my decidedly average body squeezed into a “banana hammock.”
Talking to a number of millennial Speedo wearers, however, helped me understand the practical upsides of a skimpy brief, even if you’re not Michael Phelps. “I’ve basically been wearing speedos my whole life, since my first swimming lessons, then for swimming at school, then water polo in high school and now for lifesaving,” says Reddit user Stevslabs, aka Stephen, a 21-year-old lifeguard from South Africa. “Generally, I find Speedos to be more comfortable than boardshorts. Speedos don’t chafe; they dry faster; and they allow you to tan better, too.”
Waier also observes that the triangular brief cut can help create a more flattering silhouette than shorts or tight trunks with wider outseams. They leave him feeling more naturally comfortable when he’s lounging by the pool as well. “I don’t look good in trunks, since I’m about 5-foot-11 with a swimmer’s body. They make me look shorter and boxier,” he says. “And mid-thigh shorts are all the rage right now, but to be honest, you can badly expose yourself if you’re just sitting in a chair or if you’re laying out with nothing underneath the shorts. So I feel freer wearing a brief than a mid-thigh cut.”
Yet there’s clearly some daring that goes into rocking a Speedo in public spaces. Waier tried his first pair when he was around 20, and caught some jokes from his friends and acquaintances about the skimpy swimwear (my greatest fear, of course). Even today, he picks and chooses the occasions to bust out the briefs: “When I’m at a resort with a nice private pool, my mood is to wear a brief. My mood at a big pool party with 300 people in Vegas is to wear a mid-thigh trunk. That comfort level is still a big factor,” he says.
Since the majority of people don’t wear brief-cut swimwear, anyone who does is automatically subject to greater scrutiny, which can be challenging even to those who are comfortable with their bodies. As 32-year-old redditor JustRandomOne, who lives in Southeast Asia, says, it’s a mental obstacle that has to be overcome, similar to venturing out in public in any sort of unconventional outfit. “Now I just wear it and don’t think much. I’d still admit that occasional jokes or glances from others do make me uncomfortable from time to time, though,” he explains.
In JustRandomOne’s mind, there’s a double standard in American culture, where women are generally encouraged through imagery and media messaging that skimpy swimwear is ideal, but where men are mocked for trying a Speedo unless he’s shredded, with abs and a tight upper body worth showing off.
The Reddit Speedo community — chiefly, r/Speedo — and other forums, meanwhile, suggest that real enthusiasts come in all shapes and sizes — and support each other regardless, offering earnest feedback on styles and fit. “I’d like to think that by wearing them, I’m normalizing them, and hopefully, that will encourage others to wear them too,” Stephen says. “I think that if you’re not used to wearing them but you want to start wearing them at the pool or beach, you have to get comfortable with your body and not be so self-conscious. You’re not going to be able to relax if you’re insecure.”
While the millennial Speedo fans I spoke to all expressed a hope that more men will try them, they had one common piece of advice for managing insecurity: Ease into wearing a brief by trying them in more private settings. “People will always have self-image issues. There’s an easy way around it, though. Take it one step at a time. Go to a place where there aren’t a lot of people. And go from there till you’re comfortable. Then progress,” says 33-year-old r/Speedos regular Cole Watson. “If you’re always comfortable, you’re not experiencing everything life has to offer. There’s a point in your life where you hit the fuck-it button and take a chance.”
Maxin adds that another way to start wearing brief-cut swimwear is to layer them with board shorts, so that you can bust out the Speedo look when “optimum sun hits and get rid of the tan lines,” which provides a more concrete justification for trying the look.
Just don’t let your nervousness about a first pair of briefs scare you off from the right (tight) size. As JustRandomOne says, “I’ve seen so many guys wearing a few sizes larger for whatever reason. But a baggy, saggy Speedo is ugly as fuck.”