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Revealing racerback swimsuit goes on show in new V&A museum

The Speedo costume will go on display at the V&A Dundee, which will be an international centre for design when it opens in September.

A revolutionary swimsuit whose “revealing” design caused outrage almost a century ago is to be displayed in the new V&A museum, gallery chiefs have announced.

The Speedo racerback costume for men was produced in the 1920s at a time when swimsuits were made out of wool and had sleeves to protect the wearer’s modesty.

In contrast it had straps which crossed at the back and was made of cotton or silk, which absorbed less water, with both these changes allowing greater ease of movement and helping swimmers go faster.

It was also significantly more tight-fighting than other costumes of the time, and featured the Speedo tick logo.

The new VandA Dundee (Ross fraser McLean/PA)

The controversial costume – which was barred from some beaches – was key to the success of the Australian company, which was founded by Scottish immigrant Alexander MacRae.

MacRae, who was 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.

Meredith More, the assistant curator of the V&A Dundee, said organisers were “delighted to be able to include such an early Speedo swimsuit” in the Scottish design galleries.

She added: “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.”

Signed photograph of Arne Borg used to promote Speedo Racerback swimsuits, 1927 (Sidney Riley Collection: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences/PA)

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.

But the costume was also marketed to surfers and sunbathers, with a Speedo catalogue saying it provided “maximum body exposure” making it the ideal choice for those wanting a suntan.

The costume is being loaned to the V&A Dundee – which is due to open on September 15 – by the Leicestershire County Council Museums Service, and 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.”

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