- in Fashion

The 1950s saw flair inch closer to function as an element of surf’s fundamentals. Original flair, at least. Surfers had always valued a contrarian style, bucking mainstream trends, as explained by Matt Warshaw in his latest History of Surfing chapter on surf fashion:

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.


The post-war popularity boom finally saw surf develop a style of its own. Suits that didn’t chafe and didn’t constrict movement were still a priority, but why not identify with a single stripe down the hip, or a touch of color on the waistband? After reading Warshaw’s chapter, we asked him more details about surf’s DIY fashion movement of the ’50s.

Justin Housman wrote a piece on surf fashion in 2015, and he writes that, really, fashion can’t ever be wrong. He used a Kanye quote: “I believe everyone is a fashion insider because it is illegal to be naked.”

I wear whatever my wife buys me from Marshalls, and Justin Housman wears his boardshorts backwards, like Kris Kross. So there are no fashion experts at the table here. That said, and I’ll put this as delicately as possible, Justin’s head is neck-deep up his ass. Fashion is 90% wrong and 10% right. That’s just science. [Ed. Note, from Justin Housman: “That SOB. Warshaw wears dorky bucket hats and cargo shorts.”]

So as surf fashion found its identity in the ‘50s, were there any unforgivable no-nos?

If you’re doing it yourself, and having fun, and being practical in the bargain, and not trying to make other people buy what you’re creating, then it that sense, it’s pretty hard to go wrong. DIY surf fashion, cut-off shorts, low on the hips, white T-shirts — that’s pretty bombproof. There’s a lot to be said, too, fashion-wise, for what isn’t there. No shoes, no jewelry, no underwear, in a lot of cases. Surfers were so stripped down, literally and figuratively, which looks great, and has the advantage of speeding your path from the beach to the water.

Tailors like Minoru Nii in Hawaii had to have made good money with the mainland surfers pouring in. What made operations like his so successful?

The trunks from M.Nii were rugged as hell, and you had to custom-order, which meant your pair didn’t look like the guy’s from the next beach over. Plus, Nii didn’t do mail order. You had to be in Hawaii, and you had to be there long enough to wait around for him to actually deliver. Which took weeks. And also, the “Makaha Drowner” is the greatest name for a line of trunks ever!

Did mainland brands like Katin and Birdwell later outpace the Hawaiian businesses because of pride in mainland-made goods? Or was it because you didn’t have to travel across the ocean anymore to buy a pair of shorts?

It’s really cool when you have to go all the way to Hawaii to get your trunks, but that leaves 98% of the market untapped. Katin and Birdwell trunks were also tough and looked great, and you could pick up a pair on your way to Huntington.

What were female surfers wearing at the time? How did women’s surf fashion change throughout the ’50s?

Jantzen was huge with women in general, and also popular with women surfers. Lynn’s in Waikiki made custom suits for women, and I think Take’s did, as well, also in Waikiki. Probably Nii, too, since it was all made-to-order. I could be wrong, but as far as I know, Katin and Birdwell never made women’s suits.

In the above section, you mention the bathing suit that Burt Lancaster wore in “From Here To Eternity.” How much of an effect did the period’s Hollywood have on what surfers chose to wear, or what they avoided?

Good question, and I don’t really have an answer. A lot of Hollywood people were on the beach at Malibu, mostly at the Colony, close enough to surfers to where they were biting our style. Gary Cooper had a pair of M. Nii trunks. John Wayne, Frank Sinatra. Supposedly JFK, too.

Where is surf fashion headed? In the startup of Former, Dane Reynolds said, “I’m really curious as to who’s going to buy [our stuff], because I think surfers are too cool to buy surf brand shit, and I don’t know where we’ll land.”

I don’t know either. But if Former lands in the size 34 rack at Marshalls, Dane can count on at least one customer in Seattle.


About the author