Humans have been swimming for thousands of years, whether for recreation, survival or beginning in the early 1800s, competition. While swim gear has evolved over time to the modern versions we know today, many of the standard types of gear date back to time periods as early as the 14th century. Let’s take a look at some of the most common types of swim gear, and how they have changed since their humble—sometimes even primitive—beginnings.

swimmer breathing

Swim Goggles

Who invented swim goggles?

The first known instance of swimmers protecting their eyes in the water is traced back to 14th century Persians, who were known to use polished tortoise shells while diving for pearls. Glass wasn’t incorporated until the 18th century when Polynesian skin divers created goggles made from wood or bamboo with glass lenses. While this version succeeded in creating a water-tight seal and trapped air around the eyes, they were still essentially useless for competition, as they would fall off during starts and turns, and were not completely waterproof.

Instead, the first truly competitive swim goggles were not used in swimming pools but instead used by those swimming to cross the English Channel. This version looked more like motorcycle goggles but served their purpose in protecting the swimmers’ eyes from the water. Thomas Burgess crossed the Channel in 1911 without an entirely waterproof pair but swam the breaststroke so as to not completely submerge his eyes. The first woman to cross the English Channel, Gertrude Ederle, created a waterproof pair by making a paraffin seal on her motorcycle-type goggles.

By the 1960s, individual swimmers were creating their own goggles by attaching plastic cups to their faces using elastic. In 1969, Thomas Godfrey manufactured Godfrey Goggles in the UK using polycarbonate plastic which, until that point, had never been used in sports. Godfrey Goggles were thin, light, and highly durable and were reported to be copied and pirated by many other goggle companies. Swimming goggles became a part of standard equipment by 1972, the same year Scotland’s David Wilkie became the first competitive swimmer to wear both a cap and goggle combination to compete in the Commonwealth Games.

Why do swimmers wear goggles?

Dating back to the Persians using polished tortoise shells in the 14th century, swimmers wear goggles first and foremost to protect their eyes and vision while submerged in water. Once modern swimming pools were invented, both recreational and competitive swimmers needed goggles to protect their eyes from the chemicals used to maintain swimming pools. Modern swimmers today still use goggles to protect their eyes from chemicals and water, but our more advanced goggles now contain additional features to enhance a swimmer’s experience. For example, mirrored lenses can reflect sunlight for those who swim in outdoor pools, helping to protect their eyes from harmful UV rays. Other features, like anti-fog lenses, are more for convenience than protection, but can still aid a swimmer all the same.

Mother's day swim cap

Swim Caps

Long before they were used for swimming, caps were worn by people in ancient times for bathing, where they fashioned hair nets out of waxed taffeta or synthetic silk to protect their hair from the water. With the invention of rubber in the late 1800s, swim caps, and even full-body swim costumes were made from rubber-like fabric.

Early swim caps resembled aviator helmets, with chin straps to hold the caps in place on a swimmer or bather’s head. By the 1920s, latex was invented, and thus followed the stretchier, head-hugging caps which were closer to the modern version swimmers wear today. As swimming became widely accepted as a sport and fashion bathing suits rose in popularity, swim caps were in high demand.

Swim caps soon evolved into more of a coveted fashion icon above all else. Swim caps were scarcely available during World War II, as rubber was widely used in the production of war materials. Their popularity in the fashion and Hollywood world continued through the 1940s when cinematic “aqua musicals” featured swimmer and movie star Esther Williams in synchronized swimming routines with decorative swim caps and bathing suits. In the 1950s, as women continued to spend a lot of time on elaborate hairstyles, colorful and textured swim caps remained popular.

Swim caps took a sharp turn from fashion to function in the 1960s and ‘70s. As long hair became the trend, many public swimming pools enacted strict rules requiring swimmers to wear caps. Swim caps became a functional necessity to help keep long hair out of swimming pools pumps and other equipment, and caps were only seen as a fashion statement by older generations.

Today, swim caps are still offered in latex as well as the durable and resilient silicone, which tends to be the most popular choice among modern competitive swimmers. Swimmers wear caps today to protect their hair from pool chemicals and to reduce drag while swimming competitively and during training.

colorful fins

Swim Fins

Who invented swim fins?

Swim fins were invented by none other than famed inventor and founding father, Benjamin Franklin. An avid swimmer and champion of its various health benefits from a very young age, Franklin invented the first pair of swim fins in 1717 at the age of 11. Unlike the modern fins swimmers use today, Franklin created his fins to attach to his hands.

Resembling a painter’s palette, Franklin fashioned his oval-shaped fins from wood, with a hole for the thumb in order to keep it attached to the palm of his hand. Franklin noted the fatigue his fins caused his wrists, however, and later transferred the design to his feet in a sandal-type fashion.

Fast forward to 1914, when French naval officer Louis Marie de Corlieu introduced the prototype of what would become the next modern-day design of the swim fin. After ending his military career in 1924, he devoted his time to the development of the fins, and later applied and received a patent for his design before starting mass production in 1939.

American Owen Churchill improved upon Corlieu’s design in 1940 using lighter rubber and a partially hollowed-out design, and his swim fins were first used by the U.S. Navy. He later improved upon his own design and became a bestseller in the 1970s with the introduction of bodyboarding.

Every swim fin design included some type of strapping device to keep the fins on a swimmer’s feet. It wasn’t until 1948 before the first full-foot style was designed, by Italian inventor Luigi Ferraro. Ferraro collaborated with a company called Cressi-Sub to create his design, which could be slipped on like a shoe. Cressi-Sub still produces quality snorkeling gear to this day.

Modern Swim Fins

The swim fins of today have not changed much in form or function from some of the earlier designs. As one of the most useful and common tools in a modern swimmer’s arsenal, swim fins are an essential piece of training equipment to help and boost cardio.

As a whole, modern swim gear has made vast improvements to become the essential training tools used by today’s competitive swimmers. Now that you’ve learned the history, check out the wide variety of innovative swim gear offered by BornToSwim to enhance your training sessions today!

Goggles selection

note: A couple of corrections. It was Tony Godfrey who developed the goggles in 1969 and in 1972 David Wilkie wore goggles and a cap at the Olympics, not the Commonwealth Games