Illustration by Nanda Ormond

The Short History Of Wetsuits


Wetsuits were invented by the U.S. military. Of course they were. Everything was. But this is not the place for a column about waterboarding and the secret rendition of prisoners. Military divers back then already wore drysuits, but they were baggy as hell and frankly looked ridiculous as a boyleg cut.

Aiming to improve the ability of frogmen to place explosive devices on skull-shaped volcanic island hideouts, Hugh Bradner made the first wetsuit in 1951, using Du Pont’s miracle material, neoprene. Warshaw’s History of Surfing neatly summarises this evolution as “better surfing through war-related petrochemistry”.

The scientific principle of Bradner’s wetsuit is well understood: the thin layer of water between suit and skin is heated by the body, and that heat is retained by the thermal insulation of nitrogen bubbles in the neo. That is, the water doesn’t insulate you; the trapped gas does. In the physical equation, Newtons are represented by an upper-case “N”, whilst urine is denoted by an italicised “U”, though it’s not frequently discussed.

Bradner started a short-lived wetsuit company called Edco – the world’s first. But he failed to patent his invention, assuming it would go nowhere. By 1952, bodysurfer Jack O’Neill had started manufacturing wetsuits, followed shortly afterwards by the Meistrell brothers’ Body Glove. At the same time, scuba was invented. Now there were two subcultures shivering their way through California’s winters. Difference was, divers couldn’t give a hoot about fashion, so they bought up the new suits in droves while surfers stubbornly remained all broody and macho about not feeling the cold, and continued to shiver.

Meanwhile, at Bells, the hardy pioneers of the Jarosite cliffs were paddling out in VFL footy jumpers, itching and chafing and probably increasing their windchill through the creation of a greater wetted surface area. Finally, along came Warbrick and Singer in 1970, first out of Claw’s garage, and then a Torquay bakery, offering local suits. Within three years, they’d built an export business, and indeed a township, around themselves.

But technological progress had a way to go. Early wetties were unlined, meaning the wearer had to be coated in talc to get them on. And the delicate neo tore when they came off, if they ever did come off – carpark egress from the suit was like watching a hairy-arsed cicada trying to climb out of its carapace, only twice as time-consuming. Nylon linings evolved, ending the idiotic practice of putting plastic bags over hands and feet. Next came glued and taped seams and colours. Surfers adhered resolutely to black, ignoring the safety and marketability of colours until the garish 80s, when they briefly went berserk, before reverting gloomily to black again.

But the former footy jumper wearers were happier: now standing around picturesque bonfires in the coastal heath at Bells, heating their wetsuits until they melted onto the skin and released poisonous gases. Their only remaining complaint was the distinctive hangman’s chafe-mark around their necks, which was a dead giveaway if you were ditching work or school.

The concealment of this and other awkward evidence led to the era of wearing rashies under wetsuits. Thank God that’s over. Clammy, smelly, crappy bloody things.

Modern wetsuit development has followed a law of diminishing returns. In neoprene, there’s never been a thruster moment. Wetsuits still never dry in cold places. They still smell great when they arrive and hideous after a week. Hanging them on the porch rail is still a comforting and familiar swell flag, a coded gesture between the householder and the passer-by – it’s on.

Jock Serong