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In focus: the Speedo swimsuit

The Speedo swimsuit has become a technically innovative star in its own right, and is as well known on beaches as it is in Olympic swimming pools around the world

Sally McIlhone

by Sally McIlhone


When one imagines the sleek curves of a one-piece swimsuit, the brand that instantly comes to mind is Speedo. The Australian company has been a pioneer in the field of swimwear since 1928, constantly ahead of the game when it comes to the latest fabric innovations and boasting a sporting track record that blows every other brand on the market out of the water. Despite years of technological advances, the look and reputation of the classic Speedo swimsuit has endured – a sign of a true icon. Yet, beneath the surface, thousands of minute details have been modified and perfected over the decades to create swimwear that’s championed by athletes including Briton Rebecca Adlington and American Michael Phelps, who was wearing Speedo when he won his 22 medals (18 of them gold), making him the most decorated Olympian in history.

Promising beginnings

The history of the classic Speedo swimsuit began in 1928 when Alexander Macrae’s Fortitude knitwear company launched its first swimwear collection and held a staff competition to find a name for the new line. A former sea captain called Jim Parsons triumphed with his strapline ‘Speed on in your Speedo’, winning £5 for his efforts. In the first collection, the brand launched the Racerback, a swimsuit with completely exposed shoulders, allowing for improved speed and ease of movement, and the world’s first not to be made from wool. The design’s supremacy was established in 1932 with an Olympic gold medal and a world record from Australian Claire Dennis, despite the garment raising a few eyebrows for showing ‘too much shoulder’.

Rising star

The Speedo swimsuit continued to make waves in the world of sport in the decades that followed. Athletes began endorsing the Speedo product in the 1940s, and by 1957 Speedo had launched its first swimsuit in nylon, a revolutionary step at the time. At the Mexico Olympics 11 years later, 27 out of 29 gold medallists wore Speedo suits and 22 world records were set by swimmers wearing the brand’s suits. Nylon/elastane swimsuits went into production in 1970 and at the Munich Olympics two years later, all but six nations competed in Speedo. By the Montreal Olympics four years later, Speedo was the official Olympic swimwear choice.

Olympic innovations

The 1990s ushered in a new era of invention for the Speedo swimsuit. The S2000 suit launched in 1992 just ahead of the Barcelona Olympics, was designed specifically to reduce drag – the factor which can slow down a swimmer by inhibiting smooth movement through the water – by 15% compared with traditional swimwear fabric. Reducing drag is critical in swimming, a sport where 0.01 of a second can be the difference between a medal and insignificance. The next two suits, Aquablade and Fastskin, were also designed with the goal of lowering surface resistance. By the dawn of the new millennium 83% of Olympic swimming medals were going to swimmers wearing Fastskin suits.

Speedo wowed once more in 2008 with the LZR Racer – the most technically advanced swimsuit the world has ever seen. Helping to prove its superiority, Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics while wearing the design. Ahead of the 2012 Olympics in London the brand launched the Fastskin Racing System, with cap and goggles designed to work in tandem with the swimsuit to create one fluid, drag-reducing form. Rebecca Adlington proudly championed Speedo’s swimwear before the event, saying, ‘I know I look and feel good in my Fastskin3 Super Elite.’  This year saw Speedo turn its attention towards the health-conscious consumer, launching the Fit Pinnacle range, which aims to enhance every swimmer’s technique by improving stability and body positioning.

Style factor

The Speedo swimsuit hasn’t only been a sporting hero piece, however. When the brand celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2003, designer swimwear queen Melissa Odabash created a limited-edition range which was modelled by Yasmin Le Bon and Naomi Campbell, and two years later a collaboration with avant-garde fashion label Comme des Garçons was released. In 2010, Speedo launched its body-shaping Sculpture Shapeline, proving that the iconic Speedo swimsuit was just as good for the consumer as the sports star.

In 2011, Speedo moved its global headquarters to the UK, but this market leader in the swimwear sector is dedicated to its Australian roots. For proof, one need only look to its boomerang logo, something that graced its first swimsuit, and continues to do so today.


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