Surf culture and surfer style have been making big waves in the world of luxury, with everything from Italian loafers inspired by the colours of surfer attire, to luxury watches with big-wave surfing brand ambassadors. Bilal Shadani takes a dive through the history of surf style and the latest surf-inspired style riding a crest this season
In today’s time, a surfer can be easily identified by his attire. Surf culture has developed an individual dress code or uniform of its own, a variation of boardshorts, surf t-shirts (t-shirts with surf designs or motifs on), the aforementioned Hawaiian shirts, jeans and varying brands and styles of shoes, sandals or flip-flops.
However, in the early 1950s, surf fashion was yet to be so easily identified. The sport had not become widely known and surfers were more akin to a tight fraternity with its own norms and culture rather than an easily identified demographic. Surfers were laid back, easy-going and seemingly without a care in the world and as a result, their fashion statements were entirely self-made, reflecting their beliefs in simplicity being the ideal fashion solution.
Matt Warshaw in his publication History of Surfing chapter on surf fashion says:
“Velzy and his friends had always steered clear of the typical men’s bathing suits worn by non-surfers (fitted, stretchy, high-riding, and often belted or buckled; see Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity), and they were content to wear some version of the plain cotton lifeguard trunk. “Cutoff whites” were something completely different. They had to be worn low on the hips, and the unhemmed leg openings were allowed to fray and unravel. The drawstring atop the button fly was cinched and tied before hitting the water to prevent the trunks from slipping off during wipeouts, but often purposely left undone while on the beach to swing freely about the crotch. This was surf culture in its purest form–cheap and simple, homemade, and a bit raunchy.”
It was at this time that Jack O’ Neil designed what was considered the first article of surf clothing – the wetsuit. The classic silhouette of the vest with neoprene material to keep the body warm and dry remains at the core of surfing uniform. In 1958 a bathing suit company from San Francisco began manufacturing nylon shorts made specifically for surfing. The company would come to be known as SUNDEK, and many in the industry credit it to be the first established surf brand.
As publicity for the sport and its lifestyle began to trickle into the cultural psyche, Hollywood began to take notice. With the release of Gidgit in 1959, the public was enthralled with the notion of the ‘beach bunny’ – young women who spent their time at the beach in bikinis surrounded by surfers. Although the film’s concentration was more on the relaxed, fun-filled life of Gidget, and less on actually surfing, surf and beach culture were all that would occupy the mind of the American public.
It was not until the 1960’s that the surf culture had entered the social consciousness and begun to conquer the fashion stylings of the public at large. The bikini, the quintessential piece of beachwear, was more popular than ever. The wardrobe must-haves were white T-shirts, aloha shirts, and trucker hats. Even Elvis Presley was part of the movement, with his 1961 film Blue Hawaii introducing an entire generation of impressionable movie-goers to the Hawaiian shirt and hot white shorts. The movie industry continued to exploit its new-found goldmine, releasing films like Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo without pause. Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer marked the beginning of the travel-inspired surf flick, leading to an exodus of surfers to find new surfing spots around the world. Dick Dale and the Beach Boys led the way in the newly coined “surf rock” genre, while surf magazines like John Severson’s Surfer began to appear on bookstore shelves, all contributing towards popularizing the notion of surfwear no longer being just for surfers.
The ’70s was a time exemplified best with the notion of free-spiritedness. Surfwear remained an integral part of the cultural wardrobe, though it was being accentuated with the addition of accessories; straw hats, oversized glasses and lace-up sandals were commonplace. Polka-dots and busy prints began to take the place of single colour wear for women, while stripes were becoming more common for menswear.
The ’80s heralded a marked shift in fashion trends; neon colours became the norm for all things surf related, with accessories to match. Bikinis, boardshorts, even sunscreen (Zinka being the pioneer of coloured sunscreen) were all available in a wide selection of neon colours for the discerning beachgoer. Even the humble wetsuit could not escape this trend among surfers, as wearing a plain wetsuit was recognized as a sign of a novice surfer. Visors and reflective sunglasses only added to the neon flair of the times.
The ’90s however, saw a marked change in the fashion of surfwear. No longer were neon colours in style, no longer was surfwear about the free aesthetic it had come to personify. The ’90s saw long, baggy clothing become the norm, usually in darker colours, in addition to accessories beginning to become more utilitarian and less expressive. Overseas production meant the market had become inundated with drab, colourless clothing as well as changing fashion trends leading to a downturn in the surfwear market.
Subsequent to this downturn, the technology boom of the 2000s meant that the mystery of surf culture was no longer as mysterious, as social media and technology led to greater visibility and as a result, fashion trends began to move towards less homogenous choices. Indigenously inspired fashion choices began to seep into surfwear, for example, time-honoured Indonesian patterns being used rather than traditional Hawaiian prints. Colours began to return, blending with the traditional darker hues of the 90’s without overwhelming them.
The big Four of surfwear – Billabong, O’Neill, Quiksilver and Rip Curl – had cultivated a once niche sport into a thriving, multifaceted business catering not only to the surfing professionals, but also to non-surfers alike. As surfwear exists now, it would seem almost as though it has transitioned into fashion ephemera. Changing times have meant that surfwear is no longer as pervasive in the cultural mindset as once believed; with greater connectivity and choice, consumers are looking for the next ‘new thing’, leaving the industry in a precarious situation. The Quiksilver purchase of ailing competitor Billabong this year, once fierce rivals in the 2000’s, serves to highlight the struggle faced by the industry. Only time will tell how the industry will continue to sustain itself.
In the mean time, high fashion and the luxury industry continues to cherrypick styles and motifs from subcultures including that of surf. Just take a look at this season’s Tod’s ‘Surf Life’ collection, which takes a palette of ocean style and applies it to the distinctly landlocked Italian leather gomminos for which the brand is known. Vilebrequin meanwhile, have made the upscale ‘Hawaiian’-style swimming trunk their own, reimagining it for the well-to-do beach bum. British military-inspired watchmaker Bremont also pays tribute to the men of surf with world renowned free-diver, adventurer, big-wave surfer and ocean environmentalist, Mark Healey becoming an ambassador for its new Waterman diver’s watch this season. Limited to 300 pieces, the beautifully engineered new Bremont Waterman incorporates a GMT hand and features deep-blue applied indexes on the dial. The Bremont Waterman is designed to celebrate life on and indeed under the water.
Nick English, Co-Founder of Bremont: “We have a reputation for making incredibly tough and functional dive watches which are all tested intensively by the military and explorers alike, the Bremont Waterman is no exception. Not only is this new timepiece truly over-engineered which I love, but it has also been a real joy working with Mark. There is no one who respects the strength, beauty and fragility of the oceans more than him, he really is a waterman in every sense of the word. We are honoured to be working with an adventurer who is so driven by perfection, the ocean environment and who is totally uncompromising when it comes to his equipment. Mark has been testing the Bremont Waterman down to depths of 50m, whilst holding his breath for minutes at a time, and equally whilst riding the likes of Jaws, one of the biggest waves in the world.”
It seems that the early surfers and their wave riding descendants, like other subcultures, have been a source of inspiration for high fashion, who like to underscore their own brand heritage by cherry-picking from the style of other cultures. And whether you’re hanging ten or simply hanging something in your wardrobe, one thing that never goes out of style is craftsmanship.