It was midday afternoon at Trestles, just south of San Clemente, Calif. — the whole world and then some had come to claim a peak or two, but not before beating their chests wildly to assert dominance.
A wave comes straight to me. As I crane my neck from scanning the horizon back down to face my board, the Velcro latch from my wetsuit makes its own claim from the back of my head, yanking out a few inches of locks.
And somehow, underneath that Velcro, the zipper snuck down the tracks, fully exposing my back. Suddenly, the entire Pacific Ocean flushes into my wetsuit, rendering my feverish paddling for that coveted wave completely pointless.
It was a true flounder, in the most annoying sense, thanks to my wetsuit.
Over the past decade, women’s gear in the surf industry has primarily been focused on the user-friendliness of swimwear. And while many women brave the waves in warmer tropical waters that give way for cute bikinis, the majority of female surfers are soaking themselves in anything that’s 65 degrees Fahrenheit and below.
Enter — the elusive women’s wetsuit.
The Problem With Women’s Wetsuits
Made from a variety of materials, but the most prevalent being neoprene, surf wetsuits have been around since the 1950s. They were commercialized for surfers by Jack O’Neill in the ’60s. For decades, these rubber suits have been on the market, though they have also undergone much evolution.
Wetsuits can range in materials and thicknesses, from a thinner 2mm spring suit that cuts that summer breeze to a very thick 6mm suit that prevents frostbite in Norway.
Yes, “wetties” have evolved much to the surf crowd’s benefit. And yet, a majority of women still can’t find that perfect suit. Though women have always been an integral part of the surf scene, the industry (still male-dominated to this day) caters to men.
Some women have carved their own paths by building brands dedicated to women’s unique needs. Others suffer in silence, as yet another lock of hair succumbs to a good Velcro scalping.
Historically, most surf wetsuits are designed by men with a man’s body in mind: broader shoulders, narrower hips, and not much room for curves. Oftentimes, women lack the same inventory options as men.
Not Seeing a Particular Wetsuit to Meet Your Needs? Here’s Why
“Buy the boy’s version” is what many women have been told, according to a galley of my closest surfer girls.
As an avid surfer about to enter her 20th year of catching waves, I’ve seen women’s wetsuits making significant changes in more recent years. This is thanks to brands both big and small giving way to more female designers, though the industry still has more ground to cover.
“I think the category was naturally a bit of a boys club, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way … it just was,” said Allison Roberts, Women’s Creative Director at Billabong. “It was mostly men designing suits for a mostly male surfing market with male surf shop buyers.”
When Roberts joined Billabong 18 years ago, she saw a gap between the way the company approached the fashion end of the brand and the technical wetsuit category.
“As a surfer who loves both things, I felt like there was a way we could blend those worlds; have surf and wetsuits be a seamless extension of the way we approach our line,” Roberts said.
More industry experts can agree that as more women started surfing, the need for a specifically female-designed wetsuit increased. Demand finally justified supply, and the industry responded with a shaky start by allowing men leeway to design wetsuits specifically for women.
“When I was at Billabong, I worked on the first Surf Capsule [wetsuit] along with Allison,” said Hub Hubbard, now wetsuit product developer at Patagonia. “She came up with the concept of the Surf Capsule, and it ended up being the number one wetsuit collection at Billabong globally. That was probably 2008 or 2009. At that time, the women’s range became an actual focus, rather than an afterthought.”
After moving to work for Patagonia, Hubbard and the rest of Patagonia’s surf team held a roundtable discussion in 2017 that included ambassadors, designers, and product testers — all of whom provided the team with unfiltered feedback about the company’s wetsuits.
“Women are a variety of shapes and sizes; we are fundamentally built differently than men,” said Ariel Bishop, Patagonia senior designer. “We get colder, run warmer and we’re softer in certain spots.”
With designers like Bishop, Patagonia made significant updates to their 2020-2024 women’s wetsuit lines, in addition to completely replacing neoprene with Yulex, an all-natural rubber and petroleum-neoprene alternative.
Women-Founded Wetsuit Brands
Despite great strides made in part by surf brands across the industry, women are still after variety, color, and stretchiness. So, some have struck out on their own path to creating the perfect suit for women.
In 2012, the surf scene exploded with women-owned brands developing swimwear specifically for women surfers. Brands like Seea, based in San Clemente, Calif., entered the market adding flattering spring suits with colorful designs using a newer, stretchier Yulex material.
“I started Seea because I struggled [surfing] a lot in what was out there, so for me tailoring a wetsuit and swimsuit is always key,” said Amanda Chinchelli, founder. “The biggest problem we incur is definitely [in] the shoulders, and the gapping in the back and the chest, mostly anywhere with curves.”
But once again — women still needed more wetsuit options. Angela Horacek also answered this call in 2020 by launching San Diego-based Mamala Surf.
“It was during COVID … basically, I couldn’t find a 2mm full suit to fit me, yet every guy could buy one. I was surfing in a suit that was supposed to be really nice,” said Horacek. “And it didn’t last me more than two months. I thought ‘how hard can it be to make a great wetsuit?’”
Improvements Still Needed
If you’re getting hair caught in Velcro wetsuit locks or zippers, or are struggling with torso length or curvature, a custom suit might be the way to go. Still, I noticed a pattern in my friend’s gripes — namely, the fit in the hips, shoulders, and curvier areas, as well as gripes with the type of models used to design the actual wetsuits.
“A lot of wetsuits have seams in the shoulder/armpit region that rub when you paddle and cause a rash. And I know newer wetsuits have those seam coverings, but those crack, and then you still end up chafing.”— Collette Gallo, Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, Calif., surfing for 23 years
“There’s no room for boobs. If I could add another complaint — there are no maternity wetsuits at all. I would have surfed more while pregnant if I had one.”— Devyn Hartnett, Newport Beach, Calif., surfing for 26 years
“Seems like they use young females only and the wetsuit lacks better sizing on hips, surfer shoulders, etc. My top-of-the-line suit is either equivalent to last year’s top-of-the-line men’s suit or this year’s second-best suit.”— Natalie Nevins, Newport Beach, Calif., surfing for 25 years
“My biggest complaint about women’s wetsuits is getting in and out of them. I struggle from one leg to another, going back and forth and trying to take it off. It’s [even] harder when your hands and feet are almost feeling numb.”— Kama Keohokapu, Oahu, Hawaii, surfing for 30 years
While most common complaints still center on a lack of functional design for women’s bodies and issues with fit, there are some other issues that could benefit from improvements (more options for sizing, like maternity fits!). In an ideal surf world, women will have just as good-fitting, long-lasting, body-forming, technical wetsuits — just like their male counterparts.
There may not be a lot of room for curves in wetsuits right now, but there’s certainly room to grow.
The surf industry has made — and continues to make — great strides in improving the user experience for women. Over the last 15 years, that evolution has led to great innovations, including women-led companies. California-born women’s wetsuit brands like Seea, Mamala Surf, and Kassia Surf are great starts. Nothing can be perfect, but we know the industry is working hard to design the wetsuit that every woman wants — and that many still need.
Keep going, surf industry folks!