The Semiotics of the Speedo: Why Won’t Straight American Guys Wear Swim Briefs?

Notes from the fashion apocalypse.
June 6 2014 3:45 PM

Why Are Guys Afraid to Wear Speedos?

American men need to get over their Freudian fear of showing off their junk.

A man prepares to swim on bank of a canal in subzero temperatures in central Beijing, Dec. 7, 2012.
A man prepares to swim on bank of a canal in subzero temperatures in central Beijing, Dec. 7, 2012.

Photot by Petar Kujundzic/Reuters

What are you wearing to the beach this summer? Last year, Simon Doonan bemoaned the swimwear of American men and led a rallying cry for more fellas to don Speedos. The piece is reprinted below.

Summer is here, and again I am seething with frustration. Why? Every year I scan the beaches for men in Speedos and every year I am disappointed. The ridiculous board-shorts trend shows no sign of waning. I had high hopes for change after last year’s Olympics, when the entire nation was gripped by the spectacle of those jackknifing water sprites in their micro-briefs. (Those preposterously teensy swim skivvies worn by Tom Daley et al could only be explained by some kind of harsh polyester-rationing scheme: “Sorry, boys, but only 1 square inch of fabric per customer. Don’t worry. It is quite stretchy.”) I just assumed that, come this summer, one might see an increased willingness on the part of the U.S. male to embrace a little European savoir-faire. But, yet again, all I see are men in billowing shorts.

Simon Doonan Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.

My interest is not entirely sordid. My primary motivation is, in fact, safety. Dudes are getting waterlogged, and dudes are sinking. In the course of my far-from-extensive research, I spoke to legendary West Coast swimwear magnate Mr. Turk. He shares my conviction that “board-shorts aficionados are drowning because their swimsuits are so voluminous.” A California lifeguard pal of Turk’s has been obliged, on more than one occasion, “to pull guys out of the surf because they get tangled up in huge baggy shorts.”

Drowning is not the only peril: Yes, I’m talking about gender misidentification. This past weekend I spotted two burly figures walking toward me wearing what I assumed were large peasant skirts. “What made these two beefy, short-haired possibly lesbians decide to go topless?” I asked myself. Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be a couple of dudes with man boobs in garishly printed board shorts, prompting the question: Why do American men insist on concealing their willies ’neath yards of fabric?

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If only Freud could have lived long enough to dissect the semiotics of Speedos. What would he have made of the U.S. male’s horror of being caught in a tiny swimsuit? (I use the word “horror” advisedly. For my straight friends, the most traumatizing moments in HBO’s recent Liberace movie Behind the Candelabra occurred when Matt Damon, Mr. Bourne Identity, was forced to prance about in panty-size swim briefs.) I was raised in the U.K. and grew up thinking sassier swimwear was normal, but I then moved to the U.S. and became indoctrinated into the cult of Speedo shame. So I feel uniquely qualified to address this issue. I have, as it were, a foot in both gussets.

Clearly there is a class issue. WASPs don’t do Speedos—old money has no need to resort to gratuitous flesh exposure to achieve social currency. Butt cracks are banned at the country club. Nobody has ever come upon a cache of old Kennedy family snapshots and found images of Jack, Bobby, and Teddy strutting round Martha’s Vineyard in stretch velour leopard swim briefs (like the ones I once purchased at Frederick’s of Hollywood when I lived up the street in the early 1980s).

Speedo-wearing is also a cultural flashpoint. Revealing men’s swim garments are, for the U.S. consumer, irrevocably associated with “foreigners” and, most terrifying of all, friends of Dorothy. However, there is something even more mysterious to this issue than the persistent fear of being mistaken for a bisexual Serbian cruise-ship croupier: American dudes are driven by a Wizard of Oz–like desire to “curtain off” their genitals. They are impelled to gird up their loins with yards of fabric, thereby protecting—symbolically and literally—their reproductive equipment, while sinewy Spaniards, hard-body Greeks, bronzed Aussies, diverse Latin Americans, and pale squishy Brits take a reverse approach. These fellows prefer to wear swimsuits that say, “In case you wondered, I am the proud possessor of male genitalia, and in case you don’t believe me, here it is!”

I argue that the Puritans who colonized America are to blame. There they go again, spoiling all our European fun with their exaggerated notions of modesty. If I run into any Puritans on Long Island this summer (stranger things have happened), I intend to give them a piece of my mind: “Why do you persist in making dudes wear dirndl skirts while you allow their girlfriends to dress like vacationing strippers?”

As The Soup’s Joel McHale says every week, “Let’s talk about chicks, man.”

American women have never presented themselves with more over-the-top va-va-voom than they do now, especially on the beach. Bikinis have never been smaller. Hoochies have never been hotter. Tramp stamps have never been trampier. It’s obviously time for men to correct this inequity, join the partaay, and start channeling their inner Magic Mike … or inner Borat.

Lastly, let me address the elephant in the Vilebrequin. I am talking about lard. Are most American dudes simply too fat to wear a Speedo? Is that what’s inhibiting men from embracing this comfy, functional garment? Does it only work if you are some Tom Daley-esque Adonis? Mr. Turk weighs in: “Your moobs [man-boobs] and your widening gut are going to be visible either way. I say throw on a pair of groovy ’70s shades—like the guy in those Southern Comfort ads—and learn to strut in a nifty brief or a spiffy square-cut trunk.”

Watch out for riptides!

Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.

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