Swimwear around the World

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes 

I spent almost all of my summer in Northland. It is perpetually sunny and sweltering hot, which is why it was so common to see people walking around in bikinis and shorts. However, in Auckland where I am from, it is rare to find someone wandering around in their togs. Just like here, from region to region in our little slice of heaven, people’s swimwear habits also differ from country to country – especially women’s. Swimming gear for men around the world, however, tends to be quite same-samey and is far less controversial.

Australia and New Zealand

By Hayley White

Reading time: 12 minutes 

I spent almost all of my summer in Northland. It is perpetually sunny and sweltering hot, which is why it was so common to see people walking around in bikinis and shorts. However, in Auckland where I am from, it is rare to find someone wandering around in their togs. Just like here, from region to region in our little slice of heaven, people’s swimwear habits also differ from country to country – especially women’s. Swimming gear for men around the world, however, tends to be quite same-samey and is far less controversial.

Australia and New Zealand

In Australia and New Zealand, swimwear styles are pretty similar. Because the ozone layer is consistently thinning, the sun’s ultraviolet rays are a lot more intense. Australia has the highest melanoma cases in the world, with two out of three Australians diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70. It was estimated that melanoma would be the third most common form of cancer diagnosed in 2021. This comes after 14,846 casesof melanoma had been diagnosed in Australia in 2017 (Melanoma of the skin, 2022).

In New Zealand, over 4,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma every year and it accounts for 80% of all cancer deaths. Melanoma is also the third most common cancer in New Zealand men and women (Melanoma New Zealand, n.d.). Because of these ever-growing risk factors, wearing more coverage is slowly becoming the norm.

Swimsuits known as rash shirts, rash guards, rash vests, or rashies are garments that swimmers of all genders wear to protect themselves from the sun. Rashies deflect the UV rays from the wearer and protect them from sunburn. In other instances, women wear bikinis or one-piece swimsuits to the beach and at the pools.

In both New Zealand and Australia, there is also the “slip, slop, slap, and wrap” campaign which seeks to guide people into being more sun smart. The idea of it was to ‘slip’ into clothing that covers your skin, and seek out the shade, ‘slop’ on some sunscreen, ‘slap’ on a wide-brimmed hat, and ‘wrap’ sunglasses over your eyes to protect your retinas from the UV rays.

Most men in New Zealand and Australia are seen wearing boardshorts, swimming trunks, and swimming briefs. Called ‘boardshorts’ because surfers usually wear them, they are the most versatile pair of swimwear for men because they are great for any kind of swimming activity. They can also pass as just a normal pair of shorts once you are out of the water again. They are usually made up of lighter fabric than swimming trunks and are longer in the leg.

Just like boardshorts, swimming trunks are a versatile pair of togs for men and are made of non-absorbent material with a lining inside the shorts to protect the wearer from water pressure. Men’s swimming briefs are worn everywhere but can be a great cause of laughter in the Southern Hemisphere (remember the 2006 Tip Top Trumpet ice cream TV advert asking: “How far away from the beach, do togs (Speedos) become undies?”), whereas it’s the other way around in Europe where boardshorts are often more unusual for swimming and have been looked at with amusement.

Swimming briefs were created and popularised by the Speed swimwear brand in Melbourne, Australia during the 1956 Olympics. Because of this, their more common name, Speedos, was born. They are sold around the world and vary in style depending where you go – and can be anything from full coverage, to a G-string.

China, Japan, and Korea

In Asia, people are not as keen on tanning as we are in New Zealand. In fact, Asian countries tend to associate fair skin with beauty, especially in Japan where women with fair skin are called Bihaku meaning beautifully white. This is an opinion that can be dated back to the Heian period (794-1185). The old proverb “white skin covers the seven flaws” refers to the fact that if a woman is white-skinned, then she is beautiful no matter what.

A telephone survey of 547 middle-aged and elderly women in Hong Kong revealed that 62 percent did not like going out in the sun and 58 to 67 percent spent an average of six to ten hours inside each day. Almost half of the respondents carried parasols to shade themselves while outside (Nimitphong & Holick, 2013).

This level of concern about sun exposure extends to outdoor swimming as well. It is fairly usual to see Asian women wearing long-sleeved swimming jackets with thumb holes for the cuffs to cover all the way down to the wrist. Add on some swimming leggings made of UV resistant material, a pair of swimming shorts, a massive, waterproof, wide brimmed hat – sometimes even a face mask – and the look is complete.

In 2012, CNN reported a new beach craze in China called a ‘facekini’. It is a fabric mask that almost entirely covers a swimmer’s neck and head to protect their skin from the sun. While the actual facekini was created in 2004 by a businessman named Zhang Shifan who lived in Qingdao, it did not hit Western media until around 2012.

The facekini’s main purpose is sun protection, but they are also a great way to shield against jellyfish and other insects. Once it garnered media attention, the creator went on to launch new models that covered the entire body – not just the face and neck – in 2019.

India

In India, you seldom see people wearing bikinis in public. In fact, many still swim in their full sari or long pants and kurta (salwar kameez), although upper-class Indian women do wear bikinis in their private swimming pools, at private hotel beaches, club swimming pools, and hotel pools. This is a very small minority however, because the Indian culture generally tends to choose modesty over the Western trend of flaunting one’s body.

Middle East

Middle Eastern countries are well known to be on the modest side of swimwear, and indeed, every inch of their skin is covered. It was not until the early 2000s that a young Muslim Australian woman created the burkini or burqini. Not a traditional item of clothing by any means because it is such a recent innovation, but, the burkini was fashioned with the modesty of the Muslim culture in mind. The designer of the burkini, Aheda Zanetti, said that there were a handful of experiences that led to its conception.

One such incident was the 2005 Cronulla race riots in Sydney, Australia. These riots were organised after a fight broke out between two surf lifesaver volunteers and a group of Middle Eastern men. One of the lifeguards was badly hurt after falling and hitting his head. The weekend after the incident, racially incited mobs swarmed the streets of Sydney and rioted at Cronulla Beach.

Burkini modesty swimsuit

Following the riots, Surf Life Saving Australia began to promote diversity and acceptance across all Sydney beaches by recruiting Muslim lifeguards. However, Muslim women were uncomfortable with the swimwear, so by 2007, Zanetti had designed a uniform for them that covered the whole body except the hands, feet, and face.

The burkini generally has anywhere between two to four pieces. Originally, Zanetti’s burkini was a pair of leggings and a tunic with an attached hood but other styles have a pair of leggings that tie onto a long-sleeved tunic, so the tunic does not float up in the water. A hood, or sometimes a swimming cap, covers the wearer’s hair and neck while fitting close to the face – but this may not always be attached to the tunic.

The full outfit somewhat resembles a full-length wetsuit but is a lot looser. The fabric for the burkinis is also UV resistant, which makes them great for sun protection.

Brazil

Birthplace of the Brazilian bikini, almost all Brazilian women are seen wearing bikinis in the hot summer season. Throughout winter, women start to work towards getting their bodies bikini ready – sometimes called “project bikini”.

While most other aspects of Brazil’s culture tend towards modesty, the beach is the place where they take it all off in favour of getting an even tan. Skimpy bikinis, semi-nude people, oiled bodies, and physical exercise are elements of the Brazilian beachgoer.

For the most part, being completely nude is both illegal and culturally inappropriate so Brazilians aim to dress themselves up as much as they can. One of the most important aspects of a bikini-ready look is accessories. Sunglasses, jewellery, a cell phone, and a colourful sarong to tie around the waist are all essential items for a beach-ready outfit.

France

The French have a unique taste in swimwear that leans towards conservative. Despite this, their need for hygiene in swimming pools greatly restricts what can and cannot be worn. For men especially, anything bulkier than speedos is strictly forbidden.

An Irish journalist recalled how he tried to go for a swim in mid-thigh length swimming trunks. As he got into the water, the lifeguard insisted that his trunks were strictly prohibited. The journalist said he was being ridiculous, and swam out to the middle of the pool to which the lifeguard jumped in after him and, with three others, pulled him out with the hook they use to rescue drowning swimmers. Needless to say, he had to throw on a pair of speedos.

So, no matter where you go, people wear different swimming gear wherever they are across the globe. From the United States, Australian and New Zealand bikini, swimming trunk and  Speedo, England’s swimming trunk or boxer trunk (smaller, tightfitting mini shorts), to the Middle Eastern burkini, Indian women’s sari, and Brazilian bikini, it all depends on how style is defined – whether that be culture, hygiene, comfort, or class.

 

 

Sources: 1. canceraustralia.gov.au 2. Facts & risk factors — Melanoma NZ 3. Vitamin D status and sun exposure in Southeast Asia. Dermato-Endocrinology

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