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An insulating garment that allows individuals to spend more time in cold water. It has been especially influential in the history of scuba diving and surfing. “Take away the wetsuit and you’ve lopped off 70 percent of the places where people surf and 90 percent of the hours they can put in,” says Matt Warshaw, who runs the website EncyclopediaOfSurfing.com.
The first wetsuit was created in the 1950s out of neoprene, an invention some attribute to surfer Jack O’Neill and others to University of California at Berkeley physicist Hugh Bradner. The new creation was surprisingly slow to catch on. “Back then there was a machismo attached to surfing. You went out there, froze, lit some tires on the beach to get warm, and did it all again,” says Warshaw. “The sport was for tough guys. If you wore a wetsuit, you were mocked for being a sissy.” According to legend, that all changed when surfer and diver Bev Morgan enlisted board manufacturers to outfit their athletes in the new neoprene suits, branded with company logos. A week later, the best surfers in California were all wearing them. The suit has also been useful in activities like kite-boarding and triathlon, allowing individuals to work in open water in varied seasons.
Over time, designs have become more diverse, ranging from one-millimeter-thick, torso-only versions (called shorties) to ten-millimeter-thick, full-body suits for submersion in polar seas. Though most suits are still made with neoprene, companies like Patagonia are working with more eco-friendly materials—like Yulex, derived from the guayule plant—that don’t rely on petroleum.