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Evolution of the suit

October 11, 2005|Matt Warshaw | Warshaw is the author of "The Encyclopedia of Surfing."

From the moment the first neoprene suit was poured, cooled, cut and stitched, its manufacturers have tried -- with mixed results -- to blur the distinction between fashion and utility. After all, who wants to shiver like a wet puppy or look like something out of "Creature From the Black Lagoon"?

Early '50s: In the beginning, the dive suit was the surf suit, and the surf suit was the dive suit. Fortunately this didn't last long, but the concept was clear. As Capistrano Beach surfer Mickey Munoz famously said, it's "better to be warm than cold." Fifty years later, gloves, booties and hoods are standard accessories in places like Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Some concepts are too good to change.

Late '50s: Enter the Beavertail -- a.k.a. the "rubber jacket" -- with its perpetually stiff zipper and sometimes balky grommets. The beavertail itself -- 16 inches long and 6 inches wide -- was designed to keep the jacket from riding up, but it looked like a codpiece and was just as uncomfortable. Surfers rebelled and preferred to be seen sporting a strange dangling tail flap. Neoprene at this time was as stiff as cardboard; the only way to fight rash burn was to carry around a tub of Vaseline.

1960s: The short john (the "shorty") and the long john added a whole new dimension to the neoprene ensemble. Surfers were able to ditch the surf trunks and, with a vest or jacket, stay warmer than ever before. Of course getting in and out of them was a cross between the Watusi and some comedic ballet. Witness the famous sequence in Bruce Brown's 1961 movie "Surfing Hollow Days."

1970s: The single-piece wetsuit was introduced by O'Neill. Known as the O'Neill Supersuit -- and featuring elastic nylon jersey laminated to the inside of the neoprene -- it zipped from shoulder to shoulder. Suits eventually zipped in the front or in the back and came in a variety of thicknesses, leading surfers to broaden their vocabulary with the shorthand of "3/2," "4/3" or "5/3," which described the thickness in millimeters of the neoprene.

1980s: Forget those measly accent colors; surfing succumbed to the temptations of glam -- lemon yellow, turquoise, hot pink. By some estimations this turn in fashion ushered in a period of shame and humiliation.

1990s: Black happily reemerged as the color of choice, and the neoprene formula changed. The liquid mix was heat-molded, rather than gas-blown, making the suits more supple, more flexible, sexier and warmer, and the nylon liner was changed to polypropylene. As for the proliferation of logos (as many as eight logos per suit), some surfers don't mind being walking billboards; others proudly blot out the insignias with felt-tip markers.

-- Matt Warshaw

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