A Guide to Surf Fashion and Style

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Surfing is an aspirational activity and people love wearing clothes that associate them with the freedom of the beach and riding waves. That’s why surf brands now have fashion stores in shopping malls around the world, even in landlocked places where actually going surfing is impossible.

In this article, we explore the evolution of surf wear brands, changing surf styles over the decades, financial troubles experienced by the surf industry, and the recent rise of niche surf brands that value environmental sustainability.

In its early days, surfing was a form of training for warriors and a spiritual practice across several cultures. Now, people of all ages ride waves just for the sheer love of it. The sport that began on the beaches of the South Pacific hundreds—or thousands—of years ago has spread all over the world.

Today, you can find surfers catching waves everywhere from California to South Africa to Ireland and Alaska, and surf culture has influenced movies, music, and fashion. Surfers certainly never set out to be fashion icons—in fact, comfort and function have always been their top priorities.

The look of the surfer is salty hair, a suntan and comfortable clothes. But something about that laid-back, beachy style has inspired countless designers. It’s cool, it’s casual, and most importantly, it never looks like you’re trying too hard.

To understand the beginnings of this trend, we have to travel back in time. Let’s explore how surfing began, how it spread around the world, and how surf culture blossomed in the 1960s and began changing the world of beachwear.

The Origins of Surfing

In 1767, Europeans who had sailed on an expedition to Tahiti were the first to leave a written record of surfing. They watched as the natives paddled out to sea and stood up to ride waves into shore. However, the practice does date back even further than this.

It’s believed that surfing had its early roots with Pre-Incan tribes that rode waves on small vessels that resembled the stand-up paddle boards of today. In the Mochica culture, natives used vessels called “Caballitos de Totora,” which translates to “Straw Seahorse,” to go fishing and ride waves for fun. Tourists and locals in some areas of South America still enjoy them today!

In ancient Polynesian tribes, the most capable surfer in a tribe was often determined to be the chief. In both Tahiti and Samoa, warriors learned to surf as part of their training. In Hawaii, which is often regarded as the birthplace of modern surfing, surfing was regarded as both an art form and a spiritual practice. Surfers would often pray for protection and strength before paddling out, and if the ocean was flat, they would ask the gods for waves. Constructing a surfboard itself was also considered a spiritual pursuit.

When Europeans began to colonize Hawaii, many aspects of native Hawaiian culture, including surfing, were oppressed and discouraged. Surfing was dismissed as frivolous, but when Waikiki began to open up as a tourist destination, people began trying it out for themselves and realizing how fun and freeing surfing could be.

Some native Hawaiians also began making an effort to share their love of surfing with the world and educate people on this sport. Duke Kahanamoku was a competitive swimmer who won medals in several Olympic games. He is best known for popularizing surfing in the early 1900s. He began surfing as a young boy in Hawaii, and after becoming a champion in the swimming pool, he incorporated surfing into his showings at international swimming exhibitions. He is now in the Surfing Hall of Fame.

From the beginning, surfing has always symbolized freedom and a feeling of connection with the ocean itself. Before paddling out, surfers had to check their egos and remind themselves who was really in control: Mother Nature. In some ways, this idea has always permeated surf culture, from the early days of the sport until now, and this spirit was reflected in early surf brands and many of today’s niche brands.

A Counterculture Movement

In the 1950s, surfing began to grow in popularity in a few hotspots around the world: Hawaii, Australia, and California. However, the sport wouldn’t really hit the mainstream until the 1960s, and professional contests didn’t begin until the 1970s.

In the 50s, surf fashion was essentially a “cottage industry”: major brands weren’t mass producing surf-inspired fashion, and some items that would be considered essential for many surfers today (like wetsuits and leashes) hadn’t even been invented yet. Surf fashion was in a DIY phase—basically, if a surfer was wearing it, it was “surf fashion,” and brands weren’t really targeting them yet.

In the 60s, things started to change. Elvis Presley appeared in the film Blue Hawaii, sparking further interest in the region. The famous surf documentary The Endless Summer was released to commercial and critical acclaim, and audiences everywhere were captivated by the story of two surfers traveling the world in search of the perfect wave. The Beach Boys even got in on the action, despite the fact that their drummer, Dennis Wilson, was the only member of the band with any surfing experience. Their album Surfin’ Safari featured the band on the cover with a surfboard on the beach.

As more and more people flocked to the beaches to catch a few waves, small surf brands began popping up, and surf fashion wasn’t relegated to the fringes anymore. In fact, it was on the verge of becoming a big business.

The Beginning of Big Surf Brands

Many of the major surf brands that are still around today began as small businesses, started by surfers in their garages with small investments, a little grit, and a lot of creativity. They catered to local surfers and looked at ways to improve the equipment that was already on the market, and sometimes, they made major breakthroughs in terms of both function and style.

O’Neill was one of the most innovative early surf brands that eventually became an international corporation. Founder Jack O’Neill is credited with inventing the wetsuit, while his son Pat later invented the leash.

Today, Rip Curl, Billabong, and Quiksilver are known as the “Big Three” of international surf brands. Rip Curl began in Australia in 1969, and they began by producing surfboards. The company eventually expanded into wetsuits and board shorts, improving on existing technology for divers to create better wetsuits for surfers.

Image source: Ripcurl.com

Quiksilver was also founded in 1969, and they were initially known for their board shorts. In 1991, they launched the brand Roxy, one of the first major surf brands that marketed their products exclusively towards women. As more and more women took to the water, businesses began responding to fill this new niche. Although Roxy had some financial troubles early on, they rebounded in the early 90s and are still one of the biggest women’s surf brands today.

Image source: Quiksilver.com

In 1973, Billabong was founded, becoming famous for their extra durable, triple stitched board shorts. Over the past few decades, they expanded their offerings, getting into the market for skateboards, snowboard gear and winter wear, and even accessories like watches.

There were other early brands that have persisted through today by specializing in certain products. For example, Oakley is known for their high quality, luxury sunglasses, while Reef and Rainbow are known for their iconic leather flip flops and sandals.

Surf Fashion Through the Decades

So, what did surf fashion really look like when these major brands made their debuts? In the 1950s and 60s, surf fashion was generally loose, casual, and simple. Think lifeguard trunks, denim jeans, t-shirts, and baggy sweaters for chilly mornings. Board shorts, also known as “baggies,” were favored over tight swimsuits. The bikini was introduced in the mid-1940s, and women were able to show a little more skin on the beach.

In those days, surf fashion wasn’t necessarily about looking good or cultivating a particular image. It was about comfort, functionality, and ease of motion. Sure, some people had money to spend on higher quality gear or clothing, but surf fashion definitely wasn’t a big business yet.

In the 1960s, Hawaiian-inspired looks became more popular. White t-shirts and aloha shirts were everywhere. Board shorts with colorful accents were all the rage. Beach movies were trendy at the time, and while directors took inspiration from the styles of the day, surf brands were also influenced by the styling in these films. Bright colors became more common in surf fashion.

The 1970s brought some very interesting international and artistic influences. The brand Kuta Lines was founded by Tony Brown in 1973, and while the company is no longer around today, it had a huge influence on surf fashion for decades to come. Brown came up with the general idea for his designs on a trip to Bali. He used ikat weaving and dying techniques to create unique, warm hoodies that were perfect to pull on after getting out of the water on a gray day. Surfing was now an international pursuit, and the culture of popular surf destinations had an impact on global surf fashion. Designs inspired by the iconic Kuta Lines sweaters are still popular today.

Prints and designs from regions like Oaxaca, Mexico also had an influence on designers. For example, Oaxaca “shopping bags” were woven shopping bags that surfers would purchase from local markets to hold their minimal belongings. These local designs eventually made their way onto accessories in surf shops.

The 70s also saw the influence of psychedelic art. It wasn’t uncommon to see boards with psychedelic designs—the “free love” movement was everywhere, even in surfing. Bright colors and trippy patterns gave artists and designers lots of room to get creative.

And by the time the 1980s rolled around, Day-Glo has even made its way into the world of surfing. Neon was all the rage, new gear was everywhere, and new brands were popping up, too. By this decade, it was clear that businesses had managed to commodify the counterculture of surfing. It wasn’t just a niche market anymore. Even malls hundreds of miles from a body of water were carrying surf brands. Yes, that commodification had its early beginnings in the 1960s, but it really ramped up during the 80s. In some ways, it was strange to see this counterculture movement become so commercialized—but at the same time, surfers stayed true to their roots. Yes, big brands wanted to make a dollar off the sport, but they couldn’t change the core of what surfing was really about—moving in harmony with the ocean and enjoying the thrill of it all.

By the 1990s, there was a clear crossover between surf brands and skate brands. Surf brands also began marketing to skiers and snowboarders. After all, there was an overlap between people who engaged in all kinds of “board sports,” so it was a smart marketing decision on behalf of these brands. The 1960s Hawaiian trends began to make appearances again—for a while, wearing pooka shells was quite popular, and Hawaiian florals were back on board shorts.

This decade also saw more influence from professional surfers. For example, Kelly Slater, often regarded as one of the best surfers of all time, began designing his own collections for Quiksilver.

Today, surf fashion is still about finding that sweet spot of comfort, style, and function. Think beanies and knit hats, chunky sweaters, Rainbow leather flip flops, quality sunglasses, gear with great UV protection. Of course, casual board shorts are still popular, and there are plenty of brands geared towards female surfers, too.

Major surf brands now have retail outlets all over the world, but despite the wide reach of these companies, the industry is changing, and some of them have run into financial obstacles over the past few years.

Financial Troubles

In 2013, Quiksilver reported six years of financial losses in a row, and the company declared bankruptcy in 2015. They finally made a turnaround in 2016. Billabong was in a similar situation. During the global recession in 2008, the company was in decline, and they did not achieve profitability again until 2014. But that didn’t happen until after they closed about 150 stores and cut hundreds of full-time employees, and underwent a financial restructuring.

What happened to these huge companies? Yes, the recession was a part of it—people simply didn’t have as much disposable income to spend on clothing—but that wasn’t the whole story. There were a few factors that lead to surf fashion brands taking a hit in the past decade.

As surfing became more popular, and more brands wanted to cash in on the aesthetic, the market became crowded with cheaper alternatives. It’s true that in the world of surf fashion, you definitely get what you pay for, and when it comes to equipment and swimwear, spending a little extra money is basically a worthy investment. But when you’re just going shopping for casual beachwear? Well, getting t-shirts, pants, or women’s clothing like sundresses from surf brands can also be fairly pricey. Granted, these clothes are generally more durable than fast fashion, but not everyone can afford it. Those similar, budget-friendly alternatives look a lot more attractive when you don’t have a lot to spend in the first place.

But there was a bigger issue happening in the industry. Big brands were perceived as straying from their roots. Over time, they stopped being “by surfers, for surfers”—suddenly, it was all about making as much money as possible and catering to a much wider demographic, many of whom didn’t even surf. Therefore, some people began making an effort to seek out local, niche brands or surf shops instead. That way, they knew their money was going towards people who really cared about the sport and offering products that actually suited surfers’ needs.

Anytime a counterculture movement starts going mainstream, there’s a risk that it will lose its authenticity. When surf brands were no longer connected with local surf communities and operating on a small scale, this was an expected result. Even though many of them were still putting out high quality products, that sincere connection to the sport itself was fading.

However, this definitely doesn’t spell out the end of surf fashion. Yes, the bigger brands may have lost a few customers, and some simply can’t afford their products. But the influence of surf fashion is still everywhere. In fact, these styles could even be spotted on runways in 2018—from the beaches to the world of high fashion, there’s no denying that this sport has made an impact on designers. Tropical prints, hibiscus flowers, palm leaves, and “athleisure” were all prominent fixtures on runways in spring 2018.

Louis Vuitton’s Spring 2018 menswear pop-up on Madison Avenue.
Image source: Courtesy of Louis Vuitton

So, what fills the space when some surfers don’t bring their business to the biggest brands in the industry anymore? There are a growing number of niche surf brands that are bringing new ideas and designs to the table, and while they can’t rival the biggest companies in size or sheer profits, they make up for it with individuality and genuine creativity.

The Rise of Niche Surf Brands

The niche surf brands of today tend to place a strong focus on fostering creativity, innovation, and maintaining a strong sense of brand identity—they’re not aiming to become behemoths, they want to offer something truly special and unique to their own customers.

Take Critical Slide Society, for example. This artistic collective and surf fashion label was founded in Sydney, Australia, and although it’s only about a decade old, the company has a lot to offer in terms of quality products. The founders, friends Jim Mitchell and Sam Coombies, may be smart businessmen—but they’re smart enough to know that sometimes the best move in smart fashion is not taking it all too seriously. After all, that’s in the spirit of the sport itself. There’s a certain artsy flair to the TCSS designs, and they’ve already won awards for “Best Boardshorts” twice.

It’s clear that sustainability is also a priority. For instance, TwoThirds was founded in 2009 with the motto “Protect what you love.” The brand is focused on ethical products and eco-friendly operations. It should come as no surprise that many surfers are passionate environmentalists, but when major surf fashion brands are producing clothing at such a massive scale, they can’t guarantee that their products aren’t becoming a source of pollution.

And, of course, there’s Patagonia, a leader in the fashion industry when it comes to ethical, sustainable offerings. They are simply unmatched when it comes to monitoring their supply chain and tracing exactly where their source materials are coming from and how they’re made. If anyone wants to feel secure in knowing that their outdoor gear was made by people working under fair conditions, Patagonia is the company to turn to.

Perhaps most importantly, most of these niche brands emphasize getting back to the roots that might have been lost. Vissla, founded by former head of Billabong Paul Naude, was born after Naude began questioning what was really driving the corporate surf industry. His solution was to strike out on his own, take what he had learned from his time at Billabong, and apply that knowledge to create a smaller brand that was more in touch with what surfing was really all about. Battenwear, founded by Shinya Hasegawa in 2011 with the idea of being a brand by surfers, for surfers, is all about throwing it back to decades past. The bright colors and eye popping patterns on their designs are reminiscent of beachwear and outdoor gears from the 1960s through the 1990s, and the retro feel makes their clothing stand out from the crowd.

Image source: Vissla.com

Surf fashion is here to stay—that much has been clear since the 1960s. Whether they were trying to or not, surfers started trends that would persist for decades, showing up everywhere from the beaches of Australia to boutiques in New York to retail chains in landlocked regions. There’s something aspirational about surf fashion—the feeling that no matter how far from the ocean you find yourself, wearing a sundress or a pair of boardshorts or leather flip flops with a bottle opener hidden in the heel makes you a little lighter, a little less burdened by everyday responsibilities.

What does the future of surf fashion hold? We’ll probably continue to see variations on some of the same staples for decades to come, along with more durable gear. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—surf fashion has remained influential for so long because there’s something timeless about these beachside looks.