First Speedo swimsuit to be displayed in V&A Dundee

9 May 2018

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V&A Dundee will display one of the first Speedo swimsuits in its Scottish Design Galleries when the museum opens on Saturday 15 September.

The Racerback, which caused moral outrage when it was first revealed in the 1920s and was banned from some beaches for being too revealing, revolutionised the swimwear industry.

The hydrodynamic design allowed swimmers more freedom of movement and reduced drag, quickly becoming a favourite of Olympic record breakers.

It was also the swimsuit that made Speedo, an Australian company founded by Scottish immigrant Alexander MacRae, a household name and paved the way for future controversial innovations.

MacRae, born in 1888, grew up in a small fishing village near Loch Kishorn in the West Highlands, before moving to Sydney, Australia in 1910, and setting up a hosiery company called MacRae Knitting Mills in 1914.

The firm was known for supplying the Australian Army with socks during the First World War before branching out to cater for the growing popularity of beach sports.

At the time swimsuits were made of wool and had sleeves to protect the wearer’s modesty. Instead, the Racerback had straps that crossed at the back and was made of cotton or silk, which absorbed less water. Both the radical design and these materials enabled freer movement for the swimmer and so greater speed.

The design was also significantly more tight fitting than other swimwear available at that time and included the distinctive Speedo tick logo.

In 1936 Speedo, under the leadership of MacRae, caused yet more controversy when it dressed the Olympic men’s Australian team in swimming shorts instead of the traditional one-piece during the Berlin Games.

Meredith More, V&A Dundee Assistant Curator, said: “We are delighted to be able to include such an early Speedo swimsuit in our Scottish Design Galleries.

“Alexander MacRae was one of many Scottish entrepreneurs who moved abroad to make his fortune. Capitalising on Australia’s growing beach culture, he created a ground-breaking swimsuit design that appealed to competitive swimmers and sunbathers alike.

“The Racerback’s revealing back straps challenged moral codes in the 1920s, when mixed bathing was only just becoming acceptable, but nobody could deny his hydrodynamic design allowed swimmers to achieve faster times.”

Swedish swimmer Arne Borg, who won five Olympic medals and broke 32 world records, was one of those who embraced the daring new design and he featured in several Speedo advertisements.

Speedo also designed swimsuits for women. In 1932 Claire Dennis was almost disqualified from the Olympics in Los Angeles, California, for wearing a Speedo deemed to show too much shoulder.

It was not just athletes who were won over by the new design, which was also marketed to surfers and sunbathers. A Speedo catalogue described the Racerback design as giving “maximum body exposure” making it the ideal choice for those in search of a tan.

A Racerback swimsuit will be loaned to V&A Dundee by the Leicestershire County Council Museums Service. It is believed to be the only one in a UK collection.

Sarah Nicol, Collections Engagement Officer for Leicestershire County Council, said: “When this Speedo suit came up for sale at a local vintage shop, we realised that it was a rare opportunity to acquire a swimsuit of this age, unworn and still with its manufacturer’s label attached.

“Although we are a landlocked county we have a large selection of swimwear in our collections, which reflects the history of hosiery and knitted jersey manufacture that was so important in Leicestershire.”

It will be displayed in V&A Dundee’s Scottish Design Galleries which will include around 300 beautiful and innovative objects from the V&A’s world-famous collections of art, design and performance, together with objects from other lenders.

The galleries, which will be free to enter, will explore what is unique about Scotland’s design landscape, historically and today, and will represent a wide range of design disciplines from the decorative arts – including furniture, textiles, metalwork and ceramics – to fashion, architecture, engineering and digital design.

V&A Dundee will also feature an ambitious international programme of changing exhibitions showcasing the very best of design from around the world as well as new design commissions and fast-changing installations.

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