Someone should let federal Opposition leader Tony Abbott know those oh-so-iconic budgie smugglers that have won him a portion of the ‘single mum with a daughter’ demographic were designed by a gay man — Peter Travis.
It has been 50 years since Travis designed that ultimate symbol of Australian life, the Speedo brief. Unaware of the impact his design would have on both the worlds of fashion and sport, Travis’ novel idea was simply to design a swimsuit you could actually swim in.
Speaking to Sydney Star Observer at a retrospective of his design work held at the Bondi Pavilion Gallery during NSW Seniors Week, Travis pulled out the swimsuit he wore as a young man in 1950s Manly. Made of cotton and stretching down the body like a tank top, with matching cotton shorts, it isn’t hard to imagine how liberating the introduction of some very brief briefs must have been.
“It was designed quite practically, not with fashion in mind,” Travis said. “I realised you shouldn’t have anything around your waist that would twist when you swim. The only way you could stop that would be to end the cut on your hips. It’s designed as a purely functional object.”
As a designer of everything from ceramics to kites, installations, and even the colour choices for the new Parliament House, Travis’ approach has always been simple.
“I don’t go in for anything quirky, because I just think it’s too obvious. Designing well isn’t about being different. What you’ve got to do is create something that shows your personality — because you are an individual, it will be different.
“I aim for timelessness in what I do, not just fashion.”
When Speedo Australia poached Travis from rival company Jantzen in 1960, he entered a company lacking in vision.
“When I first went into the design department, they were making all these dowdy, old-fashioned things. The man in charge really wasn’t a designer. A very nice man, and good at producing catalogues, but really their progression was about one year having four buttons on a piece, and the next year only having three,” he recalled.
“The first thing they showed me was a pair of shorts and a shirt with a Hawaiian motif. I said,
‘I’m sorry, but in the next year, everyone around the world is going to have this. A good designer never follows anyone. I will create a new fashion … I want to design a swimsuit you can swim in’. ”
Originally designed in three different sizes to accommodate different levels of modesty, the Bondi Beach swimsuit inspector was still outraged by the costume’s briefness. The inspector’s enviable task was to wander the beach, tape measure in hand, measuring people’s swimwear.
The first wearers of the now standard swimsuit were carted off on indecent exposure charges.
One wise magistrate dismissed a case on the grounds that if there was no pubic hair in public view, no harm was done.
The design has remained the choice of swimmers over the decades — real swimmers, as Travis reminded beach-goers wandering through the gallery.
Travis interrupted our interview to tell one hapless young man who had wandered in wearing board shorts, “Real swimmers wear briefs. I call those things poop-pants.”
“I’ve heard people saying things like, ‘Oh, that fat old man looks terrible in a pair of Speedos,’ and I don’t like that.
“The point is, he looks just as bad in anything else, but he shouldn’t be criticised because he wants to wear something to swim in. He’s not there for people to look at. Why shouldn’t a person who wants to swim wear that and not be criticised?”
For the same reason, Travis doesn’t mind that his invention has been picked up by Abbott.
“I thought of asking Tony to come and open the show actually — it would have been terribly funny.
“Look, he is a swimmer, and all real swimmers will wear Speedos, and they will always wear them because they’re perfect for swimming. They’re like jeans — you can decorate them and make them fancy, but in the end, people will always go back to straight jeans, because their design is based on practicality.”
Travis was acknowledged for his contribution to the Australian way of life in 2008, when he was awarded an Order of Australia. But medals are not what’s important to this prolific designer who said he caught the creator’s bug as a three-year-old, after the woman next door introduced him to macrame.
He continues to make impressive kites of kaleidoscopic colours and recently completed a stunning installation piece for a Brisbane church, which included parachute fabric, designed to look like stained-glass windows, suspended high above parishioners.
Constantly invited to speak at and work with design schools, he returned to swimwear design in one of his recent projects. When Queensland University asked him to produce some designs, Travis came up with his own answer to raunch culture and the aussieBum desire to accentuate male assets. His design features an inbuilt ‘modesty wrap’ which can be pulled out after a swim and tied around the hips to provide some cover.
Another design features an inbuilt whistle for attracting attention when in trouble — although next year’s gay lifesavers Mardi Gras entry may be equally interested in using it as an inbuilt disco whistle.
Travis is still to decide if he wants to mass produce these pieces, but he remains committed to playing with the possibilities for the practical.