The surfer look is everywhere now, but it wasn’t always this way. It used to be that what a surfer wore told you where he was from. Surfers seceded, and they dressed like it.
We can’t stop thinking about the old surf culture, so we got Jeff Divine, who captured it all for Surfer magazine in the ‘70s on the phone to help us craft a timeline of how surfers dressed. He didn’t just shoot surfers, he was one of them. (He now works as the photo editor at Surfer’s Journal.) What did the true surfers wear besides nothing? According to Divine, the surfer look wasn’t just about sunbaked hair, no shirt, no shoes, and some shorts. There was more than that. There was the Pendelton shirt that you pulled over to warm up from your morning surf, the open-collared Aloha shirt that fit loose, and those tees with the thick stripes that surfers borrowed from hot rod culture. For surfers, there wasn’t one style of dressing. “It was fractionalized,” Divine says. The clothes were Hawaii, Mexico, Bali, and classic all-American laced with a strain of communal hippie style.
Divine told us that the older generation regarded surfers the way they did bikers. Surfers had late parties, and they broke stuff. Their wave quests took them to surfing spots their parents didn’t know about, and they spoke in code. They came up with their own vocabulary on the correct suspicion that the older generation didn’t get it. These guys were athletes, but the squares were still annoyed. Surfing itself was an expression of a need to break away from consumer culture. But still, they dressed cool. And they had that man-boy swagger.
Here’s a history of surfer style through the years.
1. 1950s-1974: Miki Dora
Miki Dora was a legend. “He was like the James Dean rebel of surfing, the thinking man’s surfer,” Divine said. “He was really well known and made fun of by his contemporaries for being a rage against the machine, yet all of a sudden, he signs up to make money from the Hollywood guys as an extra.” Dora mastered the sport with his distinctive style of surfing. “It was kind of like dancing on water, especially in Malibu. That was his spot in a certain period of time.” He maintained an air of mystery and played the media. “Dora traveled the world a lot, so you didn’t really know where he was.” Legend has it that he infiltrated the Bel-air parties. “He had a big scammer vein. He was notorious for that. Allegedly, he would take things.”
2. 1960: Hang Ten
In 1960, Hang Ten, the original surfwear brad, arrived. The story was that Duke Boyd asked Doris Boeck to stitch nylon surf trunks. That’s when surfing trunks, cut like oversized boxers, were born, replacing the board shorts that M. Nii sold in the 50s. Boyd sold them for $3.75 each, and took out an ad in Surfer magazine. You knew they were Hang Ten because they had two little feet sewn in on the left leg. Surfers called these shorts “baggies.” They were bigger and baggier than the Jansen bun huggers, and tougher for the bigger waves.
3. 1962: Pendelton Shirts
The Beach Boys, the band that sang about surfing but weren’t real surfers, wore Pendleton shirts. They used to call themselves the Pendeltones, named after these collared blue and charcoal plaid shirts, and they all wore them on the cover of “Surfin’ USA.” The shirts were the norm. “The Pendleton was great. I don’t know why we started wearing them for sure. It just kind of floated into our world, probably from the Santa Barbara guys or the Santa Cruz guys because it was colder up there.”
4. 1963: H. Miura
Divine and the older guys relied on the H. Miura store near the best waves on the north shore of Oahu where the Hawaiian women custom made shorts (palakas-Hawaiaan for plaid) to fit the surfers. He went there through the ‘70s. “The little ladies would remember you, and they wrote down your name, the date, and your size, so they could go to your name and you could get new ones made. The FBI would go to look at their books for some people who were investigated for drug smuggling,” Divine said.
5. 1960s-1970s: Beach Movie Genre
Surfers themselves were a tourist attraction that people came to see, Hollywood reconstructed the surf aesthetic in its own image. The difference between the surfers you saw in the movies and the surfers for real is that the real ones were in the background as paid extras. The movie stars like Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello wore brighter clothes that were stylized with an eye toward what would pop on camera, but the real surfers looked different. Predatory commercial interests quickly took hold. Surfer style became the possession of anyone inland who had never set foot in the ocean, let alone rode a wave. “The funny thing about those movies is that if you look closely, they were all stylized by set designers. Some of the things the characters wore were dorky to a surfer. All the people in the background at the beach party wore what the surfers were really wearing.”
6. 1966: Jack Purcell tennis shoes
The world badminton champion, Jack Purcell, gave the public sneaker’s first premium shoe, Jack Purcell “tennies”. “They were white with the smile on the front, and you could wear them to death,” Divine said.
7. 1968: Mexican wedding shirts
The Mexican wedding shirts were different from what everyone was wearing. There was an embroidered pattern on the upper torso of this Mexi look, and the white fabric was thicker. Surfers scored them when they went through Tijuana on their way to Baja to surf. “They had really cool little buttons that went through loops,” Divine said. Surfers also wore huaraches; sandals made from tire tread soles.
8. 1969: Handmade Dress shirts
For a night out at the movies, surfer girlfriends from North County, San Diego started making their boyfriends conservative long-sleeved dress shirts with proper collars by hand. The girls sewed the embroidery along the length of the front of them in deep purples and light blues and fastened on coconut buttons. “As the hippie thing started rolling out, I had more hippie friends. Their wives and their girlfriends were seamstresses, and they’d come to your house measure you, hang out, you’d get stoned with them.”
9. 1972: Ocean Pacific corduroy walk short
Ocean Pacific’s corduroy walk short was cut high and sold well. “Those were great,” Divine says. “They were comfortable and softer. They were too short and they didn’t look like they fit though.” The brand crossed over, like Hang Ten before it, losing the loyalty of the OG surfers, but they were successful.
10. 1974: Oaxaca shopping bags
“Before [surfers] were branded as a $6 million lifestyle brand, we didn’t have sandals, watches, hats, backpacks, and sunglasses and all that stuff that you have now with logos on them.” Divine said. So they carried their stuff in woven shopping bags from the local markets in Oaxaca, Mexico. They didn’t have much. “We’d carry a banana, an apple, whole wheat bread, avocado, tuna, and maybe some joints.”
11. 1975: Speedos
Surfers discovered the Speedo because Europeans were wearing them in Bali. The weenie bikinis had an entirely different feel to them than the baggies did. They gave surfers the freedom to move. “It feels like you’re naked,” Divine says. “Speedo wearers were mostly the surfers who had been to Indonesia. It kind of tagged you as being one of those travelers.”
12. Late 1970s: The Psychedlic
In the beginning, there was a mindset that surfers should be egoless. According to Divine, some surfers felt they should wear black wet suits, and ride white surfboards without logos to shun attention. But then a new loud, wild and psychedelic look exploded. Beach artists airbrushed boards with marijuana leaves, and guys in the lotus position. You couldn’t wear that stuff at the wrong break though. “There were cliques and zones. They’d throw rocks at you,” Divine said.
13. The 1980s: Surfwear Boom
In the ‘80s, Day-Glo and logos ruled. The 1985 surfwear boom brought on an onslaught of branded fashion and gear. There was Gotcha, Catchit, Boomers, Sunbreakers, Sundek, Maui and Sons, Rip Curl, Billabong, and Rusty. With the surfwear boom, came the abundance of free stuff. The California beaches were places for consumer research. Initially, surfing was a spirit difficult to commodify, with its focus on disaffiliation and nature, but it worked. The companies marketed the subculture, and they had major success, even though surfing brands are struggling now. Brands gave the clothes to the better surfers across the world who they considered tastemakers as a marketing strategy. “You just wore what you were given,” Divine said. Quiksilver would invite surfers to their warehouse to pick out 10-20 items for free. “By the end of the eighties you might have it all, watches, backpacks, luggage, wetsuits, hats, glasses, trunks, shorts, shirts, jackets, sweaters,” Divine said.
14. The 1990s: Quiksilver
In the ‘90s, skate clothing evolved out of what the Venice surfers were wearing. Brands like Volcom, Hurley, O’Neil, RDCA, and Rainbow were everywhere. “Australians were generally known for being a little more flashy, your Hawaiian surfers were more laid back and wore the pooka shelves, California surfers wore light Henleys and v-necks,” Kyle McWhirter, a California surfer told us. “Board shorts started to creep up higher, and you saw more Hawaiian floral prints.” Everyone wanted what the professional competitive surfer Kelly Slater had, and his motocross jacket sold well. Slater had a lengthy list of titles, and he designed his own collections for Quiksilver. He has since parted with the brand after twenty years of sponsorship.
15. Present Day: DIY
What’s really popular now are the Vans topsider shoes, Rainbow flip flops, trunks Quiksilver, Hurley, and Volcom, worn with pocket tees made from a lighter fabric, and topped off with a Brixton hat, and Oakley sunglasses. In the morning when it’s cold, surfers wear beanies and pullovers. “You never ever wear socks to the beach. If you do, it’s a dead giveaway that you don’t do this very often,” McWhirter told us. Divine added that there’s also a subcult of surfers who still carve out their own look, which they cobble together with souvenirs from surfing trips and companies with a DIY ethos. Brands like Patagonia sell hybrid products that protect you from the UV rays. The guy behind Mollusk, (now no longer in business), Chris Gentile created Pilgrim Surf and Supply to cash in on the heritage of what was cool in the 1950s. Today they sell madras batik boardshorts and heritage shirts in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “It’s more personal now, like the working man’s look, the fisherman or guys around the ocean,” Divine said. “You’ll see a bearded guy, in old clothes with some expensive glasses. You wear your shirt until it wears out.”