In the 125 years that swimming has been an Olympic sport, it has consistently been one of the Games' most popular events. While, over time, certain aspects of the sport have changed — races are no longer held outside in open water, for one — the actual mechanics of it remain largely unchanged. Olympic swimsuits, however, have evolved quite dramatically. And although the sleek and streamlined suits seen on swimmers at
the Tokyo Games may provide similar coverage as the wool and silk tank and short-style suits competitors at early Games wore, the technology behind them is completely different.
Imagine jumping into a pool wearing a baggy wool sleeveless one-piece romper with shorts. Almost immediately the weight of the wool (not to mention the extra fabric of the suit) might begin to weigh you down and when you exited the pool it would cling uncomfortably to your skin. Yet, this was the reality for most swimmers at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.
Over the years, however, Olympic swimsuits have gotten tighter, sleeker, and more technologically advanced. Developments in fabric technology such as the invention of nylon and elastane have ultimately enabled manufacturers like Speedo, TYR, and Arena to design suits that allow swimmers to move through the water in ways early competitive swimmers would have only dreamed of.
So let’s have a look at how Olympic swimwear went from almost unisex looking full-coverage suits with shorts to daring skin-baring suits and back again.
1896 Olympics Swimming has been an Olympic event since the very first modern Games were held in 1896. In its early years, however, only men were allowed to compete in Olympic swimming events, which were held outside in open water rather than pools. Above, Alfréd Hajós of Hungary poses in his Olympic swimsuit, which featured a shorts-style similar to suits Olympians wear today. In 1896, Hajós took home two gold medals for the 100-meter freestyle and the 1,200-meter freestyle. 1904 Olympics Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Swimming was still a men’s only event at the 1904 Olympic Games held in St. Louis, Missouri. Above, Germany’s Emil Rausch poses in his Olympic swimsuit, which in all honestly looks very much like someone wearing underwear over shorts and a tank. Raush won
Germany’s first-ever Olympic swimming medal at the 1904 Games after coming in first in both the 880-yard freestyle and the 1-mile freestyle. 1912 Olympics Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
finally welcomed to compete in official Olympic swimming events (the 100-meter freestyle and the 4x100-meter freestyle relay) in 1912. Above, Australia’s Mina Wylie and Fanny Durack stand left to right in swimsuits and caps on a dock during the 1912 Games in Stockholm, Sweden. Both swimmers competed in the 100-meter freestyle event with Durack winning gold and Wylie winning silver. 1924 Olympics Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
A little over 10 years after women began competing in official Olympic swimming events, societal ideas about modesty meant women’s Olympic swimsuits hadn’t drastically changed. While swimmers from the same country began wearing a uniform suit embellished with an emblem of their country (as opposed to a plain suit or a suit of their own choosing), suits still featured modest low-cut leg openings and a relatively baggy fit.
1932 Olympics Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
At the 1932 Games, men’s Olympic swimsuits still favored a tank-style top and short-style bottoms, as shown here on American swimmer Buster Crabbe. Suits were often made using silk, which when wet became uncomfortably clingy.
1932 Olympics Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
The 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles was also where Australia’s Claire Dennis (above) sparked controversy with her wool-and-silk Speedo swimsuit. According to
Swimming World Magazine, Dennis’ suit featured a back that was cut low enough to show her shoulders — something unheard of in women’s swimsuits at the time. Complaints were lodged about Dennis and her swimsuit, alleging it showed too much shoulder and should result in her disqualification. FINA, swimmings international governing body, ultimately approved the suit, ruling it met all Olympic standards for competition wear. Dennis went on to win the gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke. 1948 Olympics
The Olympics began to allow
male swimmers to compete bare-chested in 1936, although only a handful of swimmers opted to exchange their full-body suits for the more daring briefs style suits. By 1948, however, brief-style suits were popular among a number of male Olympians, including those above preparing to dive into a pool at the start of the men’s 100-meter freestyle final at the 1948 London Olympics. 1956 Olympics Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
In 1956, Speedo solidified itself as the dominant international brand in competitive swimming when it sponsored and outfitted the entire
Australian Olympic swim team. Above, members of the Australian women’s swim team celebrate in the pool after winning the 4x100 meter relay at the 1956 Olympic Games. The 1950s were also when Speedo became the first swimsuit manufacturer to use nylon in its swimsuits, effectively improving their drag, elasticity, and overall durability. 1964 Olympics Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images
Tighter (thanks to nylon) and a bit shorter, women’s suits came in a variety of colors at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
1976 Olympics Tony Duffy/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
In the ‘70s, patterns dominated Olympic suits, including the one worn by Germany's Kornelia Ender for the women’s 100-meter butterfly race.
1984 Olympics Focus On Sport/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
At the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, women’s Olympic swimsuits featured thin straps and modern necklines and back and leg cuts, making them much more reminiscent of the athletic styles actually being worn at pools and beaches around the world.
1992 Olympics Phil O'Brien - EMPICS/PA Images/Getty Images
The technology used in suits we see Olympic swimmers wear today can be traced back to 1992. This was the year
Speedo released its S2000 suit, which provided the wearer with 15% less drag than traditional swimwear fabric at the time. According to Speedo, 53% of all swimming medals won at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona were won by athletes wearing the Speedo S2000. 2000 Olympics TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Pushed by a desire to be faster, male swimmers began ditching the barely-there brief-style for suits that offered more coverage, and thus more opportunity to reduce drag on the skin. Unlike the wool and silk suits of the past, these suits were made from
technologically advanced fabric capable of not only reducing drag but also repelling water and increasing a swimmer’s speed. At the 2000 Games in Sydney, Speedo unveiled its Fastskin suit, which featured full-body coverage and ridged fabric inspired by shark skin. Above, Chris Fydler, Ashley Callus, Michael Klim, and Ian Thorpe of Australia celebrate after winning the men’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay and setting a new world record. Michael Klim, second from right, wears a full-body suit while his teammates wear other coverage options. 2000 Olympics David Madison/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
Of course, men weren’t the only ones looking for suits that might enable them to cut through the water faster. A few female swimmers, including Amy Van Dyken, Dara Torres, Jenny Thompson, and Courtney Shealy of the United States (left to right above) also wore variations of the greater-coverage suits.
2008 Olympics Micha Theiner - PA Images/PA Images/Getty Images
Speedo unveiled the LZR Racer, which the company claimed was the most technically advanced swimsuit in the world, just ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Along with increasing swimmers’ buoyancy and speed through the use of elastane-nylon and polyurethane, the suits also compressed muscles to help cut down on fatigue. According to the brand, 92% of all swimming medals won at the 2008 Games were won by athletes wearing LZR Racer suits. Of course, the suit wasn’t without controversy as many likened it to
“technological doping,” ABC News reported. They were ultimately banned from professional swimming in 2009. 2016 Olympics Tom Pennington/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
Although not driven by modesty, Olympic swimmers like Simone Manuel of the United States have continued to favor suits with more coverage due to the performance advantage they offer.
2021 Olympics Clive Rose/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
At the Tokyo Games, spectators watched
Katie Ledecky of the United States compete in red-white-and-blue suits designed by TYR. However, the suits’ designs haven’t proved incredibly popular on social media. According to Yahoo! Sports, some have suggested the privacy panels included in women’s Tokyo Games swimsuits made it appear as if swimmers had wet themselves.