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Less is more. Nothing demonstrates the truism of that saying more than a pair of Speedos. The inventor of the skimpy cossie, Peter Travis, has to be every gay man's hero. It's thanks to him men began to wear next to nothing on the beach. I meet Travis at an exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of his original Speedo designs, writes OutUK's Christopher Kelly reporting from Sydney.
Travis takes me to a blown up photograph mounted on a wall. The black and white picture shows a 1950s Australian beach scene. "If you look carefully," says Travis, "you'll see there's not a single man that has any sense of style." Pre-Speedo, men wore two types of swimming costume: long baggy shorts or a one piece with shoulder straps - both outfits had half skirts at the front to disguise the packet and all the allure of a bin liner. Travis changed the beach scene forever by single-handedly revolutionising men's swimwear.
Travis got involved with Australian leisurewear manufacturer Speedo whilst still a student at a Sydney fashion school. Originally asked to reproduce Haiwian shirts and boxer shorts, Travis refused, saying: "The whole world will have that, I'll make you something the rest of the world doesn't have." After all, he says: "Designers don't follow fashion, they make fashion."
A beach-loving gay man, Travis realised there was a desperate need for swimwear specifically aimed at young guys. "I decided that 18-26 year-olds really should have something a little dramatic." And something 'little' and 'dramatic' is exactly what he came up with. Travis's main concern was the swimsuit should fit properly and enhance the body. He decided the waist wasn't the best place to divide the body and designed a costume to sit on the hips instead.
Peter Travis
"Proportion is the key to design," he says. "Colours can be attractive but if they're on a shape that isn't right one will still tire of it." He began by cutting some trunks down to seven inches, then five inches, and then yet again to just three inches. The end result was a swimsuit so small that it left only the genitals to the imagination. Speedo was surprised, but impressed. Others were shocked.

On seeing the new outfits, a Bondi beach inspector promptly arrested a group of men for indecent exposure. Although brought to court, the case was eventually dismissed as the costumes revealed no pubic hair. Despite the fuss, Travis insists he didn't create the costume for outrageousness sake. "I made it because there was a need to have something that fitted and that looked good on the beach," he says. The resulting publicity ensured that every young Aussie male wanted a pair of the controversial new togs.

Having taken off in Australia, the swimming briefs were exported to America where they were snapped up on sight. Funky and functional, Travis's creation was so successful that Speedo not only became a worldwide brand but also a generic term for any kind of skimpy swimming trunks. Despite hitting the beaches over 40 years ago, the Speedo still looks contemporary today. The success of the swimsuit, says Travis, is down to the "wow factor". "The wow factor," he explains, "is when all the elements of a design relate to each other in such a way that it gives a visual impression that is irresistable."

Unfortunately, not every man who squeezes into a pair of Speedos is able to leave an irresistable impression. But no matter, says Travis, having the perfect body is unimportant: "People are more notable for not being perfect."

His designs, though, have to be spot on and Travis analysies everything down to the last detail so that it relates in size and scale. "Even the most visually insensitive person responds without knowing it," he says, "when something really is right people are drawn to it." Having designed the Speedo, Travis left the fashion industry to become a respected sculptor (he has work on display at the V&A in London), a ceramic artist, and later, a kite designer. "I'm a compulsive maker, I'm designing the entire time and always believe in going to the extreme length of something," he says - as the Speedo goes to show. I suggest to Travis that, as it was his design that freed men to go near naked on the beach, it could be said he helpd shape the 60s sexual revolution. He laughs at the idea, before saying intriguingly: "My personal life is far more coloured than the objects I've designed."
Peter Travis : The Revolution continues at The Manly Art Gallery Sydney until 3rd March More info from 9949 1776

 

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