Riding the Waves of Fashion: The Evolution and Diversity of Surf Styles

Samson Donick

September 5, 2023

Drew League

Surfing, a sport that captures the essence of freedom, adrenaline, and communion with nature, has a rich cultural history that extends far beyond the waves. While the focus often lies on riding that perfect wave or mastering intricate maneuvers, there’s another aspect of the surfing world that deserves attention—the ever-evolving styles of surf culture. From functional wetsuits to iconic boardshorts and beyond, let’s dive deeply into the fashion waves that have shaped surf styles through the decades.

The Functional Beginnings

In the early days of surfing, practicality was vital. Surfers needed clothing that wouldn’t hinder their movement and could withstand saltwater, sun, and sand. The original surfers—the native Hawaiians—wore loincloths. However, as surfing spread to different parts of the world, the need for more practical, modest, and weather-appropriate clothing became apparent. This led to woolen one-piece bathing suits around the early 20th century, especially as women took up the sport.

The Birth of Boardshorts and Bikinis

As fabric technology improved, wool gave way to lighter, more flexible materials. The 1960s brought the birth of boardshorts, initially crafted by brands like Quiksilver and Billabong. These knee-length shorts became an iconic symbol of surf culture. Meanwhile, the bikini became increasingly popular among female surfers, offering the same freedom of movement as board shorts.

The Wetsuit Revolution

While boardshorts and bikinis are ideal for warm-water surfing, they are hardly suitable for colder climates. Enter the wetsuit. Invented in the 1950s by physicist Hugh Bradner, the neoprene wetsuit transformed cold-water surfing by providing thermal insulation. Today, wetsuits come in various styles, including full suits, spring suits, and even hooded versions for icy conditions.

The Bohemian and Retro Waves

As surfing gained mainstream popularity in the 1960s and 70s, the sport influenced and was influenced by the broader cultural trends of the times. Surf culture embraced bohemian styles—tie-dye shirts, baggy jeans, and bandanas. Meanwhile, retro surf styles have seen a resurgence in recent years, with many surfers adopting vintage boardshort designs and even reviving the single-fin surfboards of the past.

Street Surf and the Skate Influence

The convergence of surf and skate culture has led to the “street surf” style. This blend is most evident in clothing brands that cater to both communities. Skate-inspired surf attire includes graphic tees, cargo shorts, and flannel shirts, encapsulating an aesthetic seamlessly transitioning from the beach to urban landscapes.

The Rise of Sustainable Surf Fashion

With the growing awareness of environmental issues, many surf brands are leaning into sustainable practices. Eco-friendly wetsuits made from natural rubber, boardshorts crafted from recycled plastics, and rash guards produced from sustainable materials have become more prevalent. Surf brands are increasingly conscious of their environmental impact, aligning with the eco-aware ethos commonplace in the surf community.

Luxe Surf: High Fashion Meets the Waves

Surfing and high fashion may seem like strange bedfellows, but luxury brands have taken a keen interest in surf culture. Couture surfboards and designer wetsuits have made appearances on high-fashion runways. While these items may not be practical for the average surfer, they underscore the sport’s significant influence on broader fashion trends.

The Global Influence: Fusion Styles

Various international styles have influenced surf attire as surfing has become more global. Japanese surf culture, for instance, incorporates minimalist designs and traditional motifs. Australian surf styles often feature bold prints and colors inspired by the nation’s unique landscapes. These fusion styles enrich surf fashion’s diversity, making it a global phenomenon.

Looking Forward: The Future of Surf Styles

As we look to the future, surf style shows no sign of stagnation. Advances in fabric technology promise even more comfortable and durable surf attire. Virtual and augmented reality could even bring about the next revolution, offering new ways to design custom surf gear.

Surf style is much more than just functional clothing for a water sport; it’s a dynamic and ever-evolving form of expression that reflects the diversity and spirit of the surfing community. From its practical beginnings to its fashionable present, surf style captures the essence of freedom and adventure synonymous with riding the waves. So whether you’re a seasoned pro or a landlocked enthusiast, there’s a wave of surf styles for you to ride.