Hugh Bradner, a University of California at Berkeley physicist invented the modern wetsuit in 1951. Wetsuits became available in the mid-1950s and evolved as the relatively fragile foamed neoprene was first backed, and later sandwiched, with thin sheets of tougher material such as nylon or later LycraSpandex. Improvements in the way joints in the wetsuit were made by gluing, taping and blindstitching, helped the suit to remain waterproof and reduce flushing, the replacement of water trapped between suit and body by cold water from the outside. Further improvements in the seals at the neck, wrists and ankles produced a suit known as a "semi-dry".
Different types of wetsuit are made for different uses and for different temperatures. Suits range from a thin (2 mm or less) "shortie", covering just the torso, to a full 8 mm semi-dry, usually complemented by neoprene boots, gloves and hood.
In 1952, UC Berkley and subsequent physicist Hugh Bradner, who is considered to be the original inventor and "father of the modern wetsuit, had the insight that a thin layer of trapped water could be tolerated between the suit fabric and the skin, so long as insulation was present in the fabric in the form of trapped bubbles. In this case, the water would quickly reach skin temperature and the air in the fabric would continue to act as the thermal insulation to keep it that way. The suit did not need to be dry to be insulative. Dr. Bradner clearly understood that the gas in the suit fabric provided the thermal insulation, as his letter notes, but in the popular mind, the layer of water between skin and suit has been credited with this task. He initially sent his ideas to Lauriston C. "Larry" Marshall. Marshall was involved in a U.S. Navy/National Research Council Panel on Underwater Swimmers.
However, it was Willard Bascom, an engineer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, who suggested neoprene as a feasible material to Bradner.
Originally, wetsuits were made only with raw sheets of foam-rubber neoprene that did not have any backing material. This type of suit required extra caution while pulling it on because the raw foam-rubber by itself is both fragile and sticky against bare skin. Stretching and pulling excessively easily caused these suits to be torn in half. This was somewhat remedied by thoroughly powdering the suit and the diver's body with talc to help the rubber slide on more easily.
Backing materials first arrived in the form of nylon sheeting applied to one side of the neoprene. This allowed a swimmer to pull on the suit relatively easily since the tough nylon took most of the strain of pulling on the suit, but the suit still had the black sheet rubber exposed on the outside and the nylon was very stiff and rigid, limiting flexibility. A small strip reversed with the rubber against the skin could help provide a sealing surface to keep water out around the neck, wrists, and ankles.
In the early 1960s, the British Dunlop Sports Company brought out its yellow Aquafort neoprene wetsuit, whose high visibility was designed to improve diver safety. However, the line was discontinued after a short while and wetsuits reverted to their black uniformity. The colorful wetsuits seen today first arrived in the 1970s when double-backed neoprene was developed. Now the foam-rubber was sandwiched between two protective fabric outer layers, greatly increasing the tear-resistance of the material. An external layer also meant that decorative colours, logos, and patterns could be made with panels and strips sewn into various shapes. This growth from bare flat black rubber to full colour took off in the 1980s with brilliant fluorescent colours common on many suits. The Cornwall based company GUL, started by Dennis Cross in 1962 is best known for its use of these fluorescent colours in Europe.
Aqua Fun continues this tradition with a range of wetsuits ideal for the seaside, paddling or for outdoor pools.
Different shapes of wetsuit are available, in order of coverage: