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Speedo: Breaking records and taboos

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Revealing, tight fitting and controversial, one of the first Speedo swimsuits caused moral outrage when it was first unveiled.

By today’s standards, the Racerback swimsuit might seem conservative, but in the 1920s it made quite a splash. Debuting at a time when long-sleeved bathing wear was the norm, the swimsuit was banned from some beaches for being too revealing. It went on to revolutionise the swimwear industry.

The Racerback was also the swimsuit that made Speedo a household name and paved the way for their future controversial innovations. Speedo, an Australian company, was founded by Scottish immigrant Alexander MacRae. He was born in 1888 and grew up in a small fishing village near Loch Kishorn in the West Highlands, before moving to Sydney in 1910.

Founder of Speedo, Alexander MacRae (Speedo International)

McRae set up a hosiery company called MacRae Knitting Mills in 1914. Known for supplying the Australian Army with socks during the First World War, the firm soon capitalised on Australia’s growing beach culture, with McRae creating a ground-breaking swimsuit design that appealed to competitive swimmers and sunbathers alike.

The Racerback’s revealing back straps challenged moral codes in the 1920s, when mixed bathing was only just becoming acceptable. At the time, swimsuits were made of wool and often had sleeves to protect the wearer’s modesty. Instead, the Racerback was made of cotton or silk, which absorbed less water, and did away with sleeves entirely.

Speedo's Racerback swimsuit (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Its radical, hydrodynamic design and use of different materials allowed swimmers more freedom of movement while reducing drag, quickly becoming a favourite of Olympic record breakers. As well as being more revealing, the Racerback’s overall design was significantly more tight fitting than other swimwear available at that time and included the distinctive Speedo tick logo.

Claire Dennis covering up at the 1932 Summer Olympics

In the 1930s, still under the leadership of MacRae, Speedo caused yet more controversy. Claire Dennis was almost disqualified from the Olympics in Los Angeles, California, for wearing a Speedo deemed to show too much shoulder. Later, the company controversially dressed the Olympic men’s Australian team in swimming shorts instead of the traditional one-piece during the Berlin Games.

Swedish swimmer Arne Borg, who won five Olympic medals and broke 32 world records, was one of those who embraced the daring new design and even featured in several Speedo advertisements. At the time, Borg held all the World’s swimming records from 300 yards to 1 mile, and wore a Speedo costume for each of his record-breaking swims in Australia.

Arne Borg (Photograph by Sidney Riley. Collection: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences)

It wasn’t just athletes who were won over by the new design, the Racerback was also marketed to surfers and sunbathers. A Speedo catalogue described the Racerback design as giving “maximum body exposure” making it the ideal choice for those in search of a tan.

We’re excited to have a Racerback swimsuit on display in our Scottish Design Galleries when we open in September. On loan from the Leicestershire County Council Museums Service, it is believed to be the only one in a UK collection.

Next time you slip into your swimwear, give a wee thought to Alexander McRae; it’s thanks to him that you’re not swimming in sleeves.