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HISTORY OF BOARDSHORTS
Cultural and technical influences that contributed to the evolution of simple early swimwear into today's advanced boardshort
Background HistoryRiding waves has been around, in one form or another, for as long as people. It is believed, Pre-Inca civilizations practiced surfing, but since they used a stick or paddle there is the contention that it would be more similar to what we know today as stand up paddleboarding. The earliest known description of surfing was from the journal of British naturalist Joseph Banks aboard the HMS Endeavour during James Cook's third voyage through the islands of Tahiti, he described several local men as entertaining themselves by repeatedly riding the waves in a canoe. It is believed that the islands of Western Polynesia practiced what would have most likely resembled today's surfing. Where we first really learn anything about surfing is Hawaii. They called it “wave sliding” and did not consider it merely a recreational activity, instead, it was integrated into their culture - the ability to surf well determined social structure. The best beaches and best boards (a massive 12 feet) were carved from the trunks of Koa trees, these trees were restricted and only to be used for surfboards by the upper ruling class.
Early Years & Personalities
Recreational bathing was still a very new idea and in those early years, lacking precedent, beach attire by default, carried forth the modesty that had been dictated by the more formal inland urban environments. By today’s standards, to say that turn of the century beach attire was modest was an understatement. Women wore hats, flannel dresses, and trousers which all became so heavy when they swam that women would have to hold onto ropes when they went out into the ocean. Showing your arms, legs, and neck was considered indecent exposure and could get you arrested by the beach police, who carried tape measures and who were actually a thing in many places. The men wore one-piece woolen tank suits, which had the ability to stretch and did not absorb much water. It wasn’t till the 1920’s that leisure dress styles started to relax.
In the early days of surfing, Before WWII, John “Doc” Ball, (who founded The Palos Verdes Surf Club) brought attention to the sport with his widely circulated surf photography. He also in a small homemade way made a contribution to the advancement of swim trunks. He didn’t surf in department store clothing like most people, but instead would sew his own - a thick, baggy cotton short that didn’t bind or blow apart during a heavy wipeout. He starting to create clothing for himself and his friends, that was the beginning of attire that was specifically purpose-built for surfing.
In Hawaii - Lyn’s of Waikiki, came out with belted, high waisted, rugged cotton-blended trunks w/ vertical stripping on the hip and sold a few pairs to The Outrigger Canoe Club. One associate of this club and probably the most famous surfer in the world at the time was Duke Kahanamoku who wore his throughout the depression. He traveled extensively giving surfing exhibitions, appeared in a number of Hollywood films, and because he was considered somewhat of a heartthrob with the ladies, his outfits had a big international influence on the perception of how surfers should dress.
In the late '40s, Members of The Manhattan Beach Surf Club would purchase white sailor pants at the Salvation Army and then would trim off the bottoms so that they ended just below the knees. Using larger sizes (with a drawstring that held them tight) gave them a baggier inseam which helped protect their inner thighs from the chaffing that occurred from constantly rubbing their legs against the paraffin wax on their boards. Whereas, in the past, men's bathing suits had been fitted, high waisted & often with belts or buckles. The members of The Manhattan Beach Surf Club, (who when not surfing) wore their pants low on their waist and often left the drawstring untied. They lived in those pants and to others, they might have appeared scroungy and dirty, but they had their own vocabulary, were young, handsome, and had a certain swagger, which made them very popular with the ladies. This functional, raunchy style started to define the casual purpose-driven attitude and aesthetic for future surf wear. The thing that helped fuel the influence of the Manhattan Beach Surf Club, in part was that their clubhouse was simultaneously morphing into the world’s first retail surf shop. (Velzy Surfboards - opened in early 1950s). They were all young at the time, but a lot of later big names in surfing came out of that group.
One of Dale Velzy’s young shapers would go on to become one of the most iconic big wave surfers ever. Greg Knoll, known as “Da Bull” because of his large frame and that he would fearlessly charge down the front of giant waves, waves that very few others would be willing to ride. His famous black and white jailhouse board shorts were an early instance of individuality in surf style clothing. The story according to him goes that, there was someone who had a similar surf style and the other guy kept getting credited by photographers for surfing giant waves that were actually ridden by Greg Knoll. So while in Hawaii, he went to the tailor shop of Minoru Nii and had a distinctive pair of board shorts made, so that he wouldn’t be mistaken for other surfers.
Growth of a Culture
During the early ’50s, the story of board shorts bounced back and forth and was very intertwined between Hawaii & North America. On the North Shore of Oahu, in a tiny shack in Waianae. One long time tailor (Minoru Nii) did a brisk business in mending the shorts of the local surfers who brought them into his shop for repairs. Over time, as the popularity of the sport and his business grew, he eventually started creating custom surf trunks of his own. In the beginning he made them out of Palaka fabric (a durable cotton with a check pattern) that was typically worn by workers in the nearby sugar cane plantations, but eventually they evolved into becoming made out of a solid canvas twill with a laced front. . He made them baggier than normal - colloquially they became known as "baggies" and these trunks started to more closely resemble what today we know as board shorts. He also started experimenting with brighter colors, added a wax pocket in back and since his shop had previously done repairs on gym shorts and band uniforms for the local schools, he had rolls of colored fabric tape on hand. Using that, he would add surfer stripes down the sides to juice them up and so that no two were alike.
Selling at the time for $4, these coveted and highly prized M. Nii trunks were called “Mahaka Drowners” because unlike others, they didn’t slide off when you wiped out. Because M. Nii did not do mail order and each pair was custom made - you had to wait around for him to deliver, which took several weeks to a month. As word spread + the difficulty required to obtain them, they grew to become status symbols back on the mainland within the small but quickly growing West Coast surfing community. Owing to their purpose-built nature and organic story, M. Nii’s “Mahaka Drowners” are considered by many to be the first true modern style surf trunks.
In those days, an industry hadn’t even started yet. What surfers wore arose more organically. Surfing’s widespread popularity was still about a decade off, but it was those early adopters and the personalities behind them that set the tone for future brands.
Mainstream Popularity & Consumerism
In 1959, the release of the movie “Gidget” boosted surfing's popularity and what was once a small underground culture quickly exploded into a national fad. The movie's stylists, who knew nothing about surfing, dressed the actors in bright colors that looked good on camera and while it captured the reckless attitude, it did not reflect the actually muted pragmatism that had guided surf wear up until then. But the movie communicated a certain kind of lifestyle, a free-spirited, counter-culture cool, which very much caught on with the masses. It spawned many other movies (Endless Summer) and music (Beach Boys) and the trend of surfing literally exploded overnight. What was once a small, localized, carefree cottage industry, found itself being monetized by new brands and quickly grew into a much larger sanitized story.
The biggest problem with boardshorts had always been how to effectively keep the pants up without a belt. Manufacturers started playing with various methods of closure (side, Velcro, internal belts, laced front) and when form started to equal function, we started to see what could loosely be considered the first of technical boardshorts.
Hang Ten, (charismatic Peter Drowd) which had been around since the mid-60’s making cotton trunks, rose to fame and became California’s first real major brand. In 1966, they sponsored the first group of “team riders” of which Greg knoll was one and by the early '70s they were the first brand to really establish an international market. They were the first to adopt nylon (quick-dry) as a material and some say the originator of the modern boardshort.
Sundek came along at the right time, changing the silhouette by introducing a flat waistband (instead of the previous gather drawstring) and shortening the legs, which overall produced a cleaned-up aesthetic. They made it from 100% quick-dry nylon, which gave it dual functionality because it allowed it to be both a swim trunk and a walk short.
Throughout the ’60s and 70’s many new surf, brands entered the market: Jams, Gotcha, Maui & Sons, OP, Lightning Bolt, Rip Curl, Quicksilver, Billabong.
In Australia during the '70s, Stubbies owned the board short business, but their (now legendary) inaugural Stubbies Surf classic ('77 at Burligh Heads) really advanced the contest side of surfing. Benefiting from strong waves, best surfers, biggest prize and a unique location - what really set this first of its kind contest apart was the introduction of a new (man on man) format. Marketing and sponsorship were almost nonexistent back in those days, but the incredible amount of interest the event generated went a long way towards differentiating Stubbies from other brands, and the aggressive lifestyle component of the contest also strongly reinforced their association with the concept of cool.
California in the 80's - skateboard culture and new wave music started to rise in popularity and with it the brand, Jimmy'z. Instead of snaps or belt buckles, their boardshorts used an interior belting system with side closure attached by Velcro. It was a distinctively looking design. Later in the ’80s, big commercial interests began to take hold and young willing consumers became increasingly inspired by the beach and the surf lifestyle images that the big businesses were propelled into the media. This led to new informal attitudes about dress, swimwear started to become an acceptable day to day wear. Cultural tastes for all things new and anti-fashion pushed the brand “Jams” (swim trunk - over-scaled, brightly floral patterns - very loose, cotton baggy sack style, drawstring) into a brief, but mainstream and very substantial, fad in the mid-’80s. They were inspired by patterns the founder had once seen in photographs of Russian tourists vacationing at the Black Sea. They were named jams because their first prototype was made by merely shortening a pair of pajama bottoms.
Billabong and Ocean pacific introduced lycra into a short based on the material used in triathlon suits, which gave the boardshorts a quality of stretch that is very much popular today.
Quicksilver introduces “Echo beach” boardshorts with radical new wave inspired prints. Rider Dan Kwock wearing neon polka-dot trunks caused a sensation.
Gotcha (Laguna Beach 1978) used aggressive marketing and the connections of its founder (pro-surfer Michael Thompson) to attract many of the day's top riders. It was a longer Bermuda style with loud, flashy designs. For many years a financially dominant brand was the first surf lifestyle brand to reach 100 million dollars in sales.
During the late 80’s, the introduction of neoprene offered the technical advantage of seamless design which prevented chapping and although “experimentation” fit in with 1980’s cultural willingness to try new materials and bright colors, many felt they had no style and the trend was only popular for a short-lived period of time.
During the ’90s, skate culture (a style which had in the past had been an outgrowth of what surfers were wearing) now had become larger than surfing and the pendulum of its bulk swung things back towards skateboarding now influencing style in the surf apparel industry. Since skateboarding was born out of street culture, its aesthetic was heavily identifiable by the (arguably loud) individualism of graffiti and music.
2000 to Present
Surfing phenomenon Andy Irons further strengthens the bond between pro surfers and brands by competing in matching and iconically designed Billabong's Rising Sun board short paired with an aesthetically matching surfboard. Gel-infused string ties, advanced technical microfibers, silicone weave overlays for structure, welded & glue seams, unibody construction, digital pattern making, laser cutting are all examples of present-day technical transformations being explored and adopted by brands and manufacturers.