Budgie smugglers uncovered
The uniform of champions or an affront to public decency? Damien Murphy charts the mixed fortunes of Australia's little gift to the world.
He possessed the red, pitted, bulbous nose of a drinker and his looming stomach was encased by a fading, moth-eaten green blazer with a Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games insignia on the breast pocket. The thing was wobbling with rage.
An official with the Victorian Amateur Swimming Association, he was pointing with anger at my Speedos as I stood behind the starting block.
''They are not four inches at the side,'' he yelled imperially over the tannoy announcement. ''Where is the skirt at front? Leave the concourse immediately. Get out. You are disgusting … nothing left to the imagination.'' There was nothing to imagine.
Thirteen years old and never been kissed, I was slim, tow-headed, burned brown by summer holidays on Portsea's front beach and totally oblivious to an old man's prurience: no lascivious kid out of Death in Venice was going to soil the concourse where just six years earlier walked giants like John Henricks, Murray Rose, John Devitt and David Thiele, Lorraine Crapp, Dawn Fraser and Faith Leech.
So ended my only attempt to win a Victorian freestyle title.
In the years that followed my swimming career petered out, boyhood dreams of Olympic glory sunk by smoking, drinking, girls, examinations and surfing. Nothing, however, could torpedo Speedos.
They became an Australian word. They went global. They went gay (not a bad thing in Australia, not a good thing in continental US). They graced Olympic medal winners.
They transmogrified into a sort of steroid material that smashed 70 world records. They made competitive swimming boring. They survived the onslaught of boardshorts. They got targeted by public decency advocates in England and the US. They were embraced by Hollywood; ''hot bod'' actors like Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig made them a career move, tepid types like David Hasselhoff made them an embarrassment - his Baywatch period pose replete with shag-pile body hair and leather jacket remains forever a black day for Speedo purists.
They rose to glory and fell from grace.
Thus, this year Speedo International reported a 17 per cent rise in Australian sales and a 44 per cent worldwide, mainly on the back of Sex and the City 2, which featured a scene of nine supposed Australian rugby players wearing less than meets the eye.
But sadness is just over the horizon. Queensland surf lifesaving clubs allow Nippers to wear boardshorts in the belief that kids do not want to be seen dead in Speedos. Not only have the youth of Australia turned their backs on an icon but to make matters worse, Speedos have been embraced by that ultimate old fogey, the politician.
They seem a mandatory requirement for membership of the Liberal Party.
Peter Debnam is to blame for their politicisation. A former Liberal leader, he campaigned tirelessly in Speedos during the 2007 NSW state election. He lost. Tony Abbott cut his image from the same cloth. He lost. Ted Baillieu wore them during his Victorian campaign in 2006. He lost. Victorians must have woken up the morning Baillieu was due to be sworn in as premier last month and realised what they had done when he insisted on swimming a few laps in his Speedos for breakfast television show cameras. Like most marsupials, conservative politicians in Speedos are natives of Australia.
Nobody ever spotted Winston Churchill, George W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher or Piggy Muldoon near a beach or swimming pool, let alone in a swimming costume.
The Liberal prime minister of the 1960s, Harold Holt, blazed the track. The first Australian politician to disrobe in public, Holt came to office after the double-breasted-suit-swathed Robert Menzies and had the political sense not to show too much. He covered himself in a swashbuckling diver's wetsuit while posing for photos on Portsea Back Beach. He was to lose his life on that same beach the following summer but that day in 1966 he was wily enough to have two bikini-wearing daughters-in-law at his side to distract closer inspection by voters.
Such subtlety has eluded Abbott and Baillieu. They have turned leadership into a brazen opportunity to appear in full frontal full-pelted glory, seemingly ignorant of all-over Brazilians, James Joyce's observation on ''the scrotum-tightening sea'' in Ulysses and George Costanza's dire warning of the effect of cold water on the penis in Seinfeld.
For its part, Labor prefers to keep its clothes on. It is not just modesty. Labor learned the hard way. The party's 1975 national conference at Terrigal had then ALP president Bob Hawke and a lot of MPs jiggling about in Speedos, a frightening sight that may have convinced many Australians they did not possess the gravitas to run the country.
However, Labor is not didactic about Speedos. Kevin Rudd staffer Lachlan Harris was a partner in a swimwear company that flogged Lycra togs over the internet under the brand ''Budgy Smuggler''. Harris's spelling misadventures perhaps attest to Rudd's problems getting his message across - Harris was his senior media adviser.
The term Speedo as the proprietary name for a make of swimming costumes was patented in Australia in 1933. But the company started years earlier during the WWI when a Scot immigrant Alexander MacRae established MacRae Hosiery in Bondi, manufacturing knitted undergarments and swimmers. In 1928, a staffer called Parsons entered a competition to come up with a catchy phrase for a new product: ''Speed on in your Speedos'' was his winning entry and a brand was born.
Swede Arne Borg broke a world swimming record in Speedos in 1929; at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, Australian swimmer Clare Dennis won gold in a Speedos costume. They evolved from wool to satin and finally cotton, discreet through each metamorphosis with a modest handspan worth of material at the side and a prudish ''skirt'' out front. The invention of quick-drying nylon in 1955 turned Speedo into a patriotic deed.
Until then, Australia was a tower of babel when it came to swimwear with bathers, togs, swimmers or cozzies the local lingua franca, depending on which state was speaking. But Speedos' sponsorship of the all-conquering eight gold-medal-winning Australian swimming team at the 1956 Games gave them huge market share and the status of an Australian word. Even when the brand fell into British ownership in 1991, Australians were unperturbed and stuck with Speedos as the cover-all term for swimming costumes.
But it was not until public vulgarity came out from behind the shelter sheds and stand-up comic venues and joined mainstream language that Speedos developed a thesaurus-worthy range of risque synonyms: the crude-but-clever ''blue pointers'' of the 1960s had, by the turn of the century, morphed into budgie smugglers.
In the years between lay lolly bags, sluggoes, penis pointers, banana slings, racers and parrot smugglers (for people with an inflated sense of their own importance).
Budgie smugglers, with its perjorative nod to minimalism, sounds like something purloined from Barry Humphries by Wendy Harmer during her early-1980s feminist period. In fact, just as sluggoes was a surfer's jibe to the small-mindedness of surf lifesaving club members, budgie smugglers may have begun as another surfer's insult to clubbies.
The two words made their first appearance in the Macquarie Dictionary in 2004 but Bruce Moore, the director of the Australian National University's Australian National Dictionary Centre, reckons he isolated its first appearance in Australian English four years earlier, in the pages of the Newcastle Herald.
Chad Watson was a reporter on the newspaper in December 2000 when he wrote of a radio DJ losing a race against an ironman in ''budgie smugglers''. Watson, a former clubbie and surfer, modestly says he did not invent the phrase.
''It was a term of abuse to the clubbies who hassled us when we were riding boards at - where else - Nobbys Beach,'' he says. ''Budgie smugglers had been around for years.
''Sluggoes was an earlier form that allowed surfers to inform clubbies they were lacking in some ways; budgerigars continued the theme.''
The habit of using swimming costumes as a below-the-belt wound is probably deeply Australian and deeply Freudian. But it spread internationally: ''I don't know if you have ever been to one but they wear these little Speedos and they grind against each other and it's just a terrible thing.'' That was Carl Paladino attacking gay pride parades. He was a Republican candidate who, with support from the Tea Party, stood for the New York governorship in November. He probably thought he was on a good thing, Speedo bashing. He failed to get elected.
Americans, especially those living inland, get excited by Speedos. There are many website raves about the swimming costume's connection with gay culture.
''American men have an aversion to displaying their bodies in public,'' one German visitor blogged. ''Ever since gay men came out of the closet in the '80s and showed us who they were, straight American men went into the closet to show us what they weren't. Before the late '80s men wore shorter shorts and swimwear was short and fitted. Men used to be so free and liberated then. Now they are scared.''
Australians are far more relaxed. The aussieBum company, an Australian swimwear manufacturer that started in 2001, positively celebrates the male body, sells online across the world and has a large gay clientele. The Leichhardt-based company scored a PR coup and had something for everyone when their wares began being worn by celebrities including David Beckham and Ewan McGregor and Kylie Minogue's dancers.
Surf shops offer a very small range of swimsuits. Some sell their own brands but they are relatively useless at stopping the chafing that goes with sitting astride a surfboard. Quick-drying Speedos-style costumes are good for swimming laps and posing, especially for blokes who have spent a fortune at a gym in pursuit of a six pack.
Jammers, Speedos with tight legs and a shape that removes the budgie from the smuggler, covers the ravages of time for older swimmers but that is not to say the briefer style is only for the young and slim.
There are diehards. Among them are the codgers of the 104-year-old all-male Manly Surf Club Inc at South Steyne, the birthplace of Australian surfing where a Kanaka, Tommy Tanna, started teaching local teenagers how to body surf in 1891.
They ritualistically lower their Speedos into the surf soon after dawn most mornings. The pain is so excruciating, the membership list is booked out for years.
History of Speedos
1928 Sydney company Fortitude launches a range of swimwear and holds a staff competition to find a name and slogan for the range. Captain Jim Parsons wins the £5 prize with the name Speedo and slogan ''Speed on in your Speedos''.
1929 Company changes name to Speedo Knitting Mills.
1936 The Australian men's swim team wear a bare-chested swimsuit in the Berlin Olympic Games.
1957 Speedo starts producing costumes made of nylon.
1959 Speedo begins exporting to the US.
1960 The first Speedo leisure-style men's swimming briefs go on sale to the public, created by Sydney designer Peter Travis.
1980s The Speedo trademark now protected in 112 countries.
1990/1 Speedo brand is sold to British company Pentland Group.
2010 After receiving criticism for wearing Speedos, Tony Abbott burns a pair during a live radio appearance on June 30. Speedo records a 17 per cent increase in Australian sales of the classic men's brief costume for the year.
Sydney Morning Herald