The Origins of Surf Clothing: From Humble Origins to Big Fish

Jack O’Neill, a one-time fisherman and surfing aficionado living in San Francisco, wanted to expand the range of equipment on offer to the surfing fraternity, and make some money on the side of his other business enterprises.

Eventually, he across a material called neoprene, which legend has it he discovered on an airliner (although aviation experts contest this since neoprene is flammable and so wouldn’t be used inside a plane). This synthetic rubber based on polychloroprene offered superior insulation, flexibility and tensile strength to any of the previous options. His early designs using neoprene were heavily reliant on the shape given by the swimming costumes and underwear of that era, which were skin-tight and full-length. As well as the full-length wetsuit, his designs included the spring suit and the short jack, and O’Neill developed expertise in gluing and stitching techniques in a variety of designs. Today, the names of O’Neill surf suits emphasise the ungainliness of the surfing wetsuit or surf suit wearer, with names such as Psycho I and Psycho II, Epic and Mutant.

O’Neill was the first to have the name Surf Shop as a trade name, which he used when he opened a shop in Santa Cruz in 1959, a move aimed at benefitting from the warmer surfing weather and bigger waves. While in the beginning O’Neill’s markets were limited to surfing community friends and tourists, during the late 50s and 60s surfing took off like a rocket, when Hollywood discovered the ancient Hawaiian sport in the 1959 film Gidget, and magazine publishers, marketers and musicians followed suit; demand for Jack’s t-shirts snowballed. In the beginning the O’Neill operation was a pretty straightforward family business; by the seventies Jack was able to sponsor his own surf team: Team O’Neill still exists today, and women’s team member Kyla Langen recently won the Pro-Am surf contest at Huntington Beach. During the sixties, rival brands such as Australian Rip Curl and Quicksilver joined the surf clothing business, with their own teams and events, as well as many smaller, local companies.

Surf clothing brands have diversified to offer snow and diving gear as well traditional surf ranges, aiming to stay aligned with the latest adventure sport fashions. Quicksilver also has a skateboarding range, and a world champion skate team. Meanwhile, each company vies to stay ahead with surf-clothing innovation and design, meeting the challenges of different conditions and climates. Many also offer extended clothing ranges for the high street market, making the most of powerful brands, striking graphic art, and endorsed by the team champions. The appeal of surf clothing in general can be traced back to its origins: one man’s passion for an inspiring sport. More generally, surf clothing signifies alternative lifestyles, a spirit of adventure, and respect for the challenges of nature.

Shaun Parker is a surfing aficionado and keen follower of the surf shop industry. To find out more see

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