How developments in swimwear have improved performance

As aquatic professionals you will know that being equipped with the right swimwear is critically important for competitive swimmers. Every second counts, so it is important to have the best fabric and the right body coverage. Last month our blog covered how modern swimsuits can affect performance. This blog will look into the history of swimsuits and how they have developed over time.

At the end of World War II, companies began to research and develop materials for swimwear that could increase the swimmer’s speed. Swimming costumes have been around since the 1800s. In the early 20th century they were made of an unflattering knitted material, which became heavy when immersed in water – not exactly ideal!


British swimmers J. Slane (left) and C. Stephens as they trained for the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.

Lighter, silk outfits were introduced for elite swimmers for the 1924 Olympics.

2The Finnish swimming team during the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.

In the 1930s rayon, an artificial version of silk, was introduced, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that swimwear technology really took off. Manufacturers started to look at creating a costume which was attractive and comfortable, without causing offence. Developments in man-made fabrics such as nylon in the 1940s and 50s meant swimsuits became light, comfortable and cheap to produce.


Corinne Condon, an American swimmer poses for this portrait circa 1950.

By the 1960s swimming had become big business and athletes were getting faster all the time. Friction, however, was still a huge problem, which meant that athletes still couldn’t swim with 100% efficiency. One fraction of a second could make a difference between a gold and silver medal.

In the 1980s Speedo became the first company to develop nylon/Lycra swimwear. These flexible and lightweight suits are still the most popular today.


Nicole Haislett (left) and Dara Torres: U.S Gold Medallists during the 1992 Barcelona Games.


Speedo was the suit of choice in the men’s 100-metre backstroke during the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Speedo’s biggest innovation popped onto the scene in 2000. The all-in-one body suit was designed to mimic the movement of a shark. It sparked debate over the technology that cut swimmers’ times dramatically. Stars such as Michael Phelps wore the neck-to-ankle suits for the Athens Olympics in 2004.


Australian Susie O’Neill shows off a new style costume in 2000.

During this period there were huge numbers of world records broken, which prompted The Federation International De Nation (FINA), the governing body for swimming, to bring in new guidelines. Non-textile suits were banned and the amount of body coverage was limited to between the waist and knees for men, and not past the shoulders or below the knees for women.

Designers had to come up with new ways of maintaining speed, whilst keeping within the guidelines. Speedo responded with their Fastskin3 system, comprising of a cap, goggles and suit, engineered to work in unison. The system as a whole is meant to benefit swimmers in areas that traditionally slow them down, such as by giving an 11% improvement in oxygen economy, which enables them to swim stronger for longer.


British swimming stars Rebecca Adlington and Liam Tancock model Speedo’s Fastskin3 swimwear systems.

Designers will continue to develop new innovations in swimming costumes to help swimmers efficiency and new costumes will always be under the spotlight, for the very reason they are created – to help swimmers go faster. We are interested to see what swimwear companies come up with next!

Image Credit:  and


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