Wind-swept, sand-tousled hair. Deep golden tans. Baseball caps and colorful sunglasses. Sandals all year-round. There’s a lot to love about the iconic laid-back surfer style.
1. Board shorts
You really can’t properly emulate the surfer style without a pair (or three or four) of board shorts. Originally designed strictly as surfboard-friendly swimsuits, board shorts have gained incredible popularity as wear-all-day shorts.
Although the terms “swim trunks” and “board shorts” are often used interchangeably and many people may not even realize there’s a difference, there are, in fact, some key things that set them apart.
Being that board shorts were designed specifically for surfing, they are typically much longer than swim trunks, falling at or below the knee. Board shorts are most often made from soft cotton blends, while their similar-looking counterparts are generally crisper and made out of polyester.
Swim trunks also almost always have inner mesh lining and elastic waistbands, while board shorts don’t have any lining and (usually) a velcro and drawstring waist.
Finally, board shorts are actually designed for casual wear in addition to just surfing and swimming, so it’s easier to find a pair with more subtle design elements and functional details, like pockets.
Board shorts are the foundation of any surfer-style outfit, so it’s important to make sure they’re A) comfortable and B) can be worn with many different shirts and shoes. For these reasons, we highly recommend these classic board shorts from O’Neill.
If you prefer a pair with a bit more color but that’s still easy to match up with other clothing pieces, check out the wildly-popular O’Neill Hyperfreak Sandbar shorts.
You’ve got your board shorts, so next up is sandals. In surf culture, there are plenty of times when you may be shirt-less, but shorts and sandals are a constant. Sandals doesn’t necessarily have to mean flip-flops; there are other styles, such as slides.
The most important things — particularly if you’ll actually be wearing them to the beach or on the water — are that they hold up well to saltwater (not all are!) and they’re easy to slip on and off.
Look for water-resistant materials (sorry, leather) and sturdy bottoms that you can easily walk across both sand and rocks in.
Your sandals will likely get a ton of wear, so it’s worth investing in a slightly higher-quality pair. Don’t skip out and buy a basic pair of rubber thongs from a big box store, trust us.
3. Graphic and logo shirts
Since climates vary significantly across the world, this category is fairly broad. Surf style in southern California, for example, heavily favors brightly-colored tank tops. On the other hand, in the small fishing village of Klitmøller, Denmark, a long-sleeved t-shirt is more realistic for daily wear.
Here, we’re going to focus more on the design and patterns rather than the sleeve style. You can be the judge of whether you should go sleeveless or not.
The story of the graphic tee trend in surf culture is actually a really cool one. When surfing was still hardly a “thing,” small shops and companies would sponsor surfers in competitions. They’d put their logo on the competitors’ surfboards and give them t-shirts to wear. It helped the surfers, of course, but it also acted as walking advertisements for these little-known surf shops.
As the industry evolved, small, independent surf shops were opened that largely had a locals-only following. Patrons would buy the shirts to support the shops and it became a trend of sorts. This is actually still true to this day. Just take a stroll down any side street in a small beach town like Encinitas, California, or Sayulita, Mexico, and prepare to be awed at the number of thriving-but-tiny surf shops.
Today, graphic tees have evolved from strictly surf shops to supporting any number of personally-important things, such as giving a shoutout to where you’re from or a favorite band.
Logo and graphic shirts have come a loooong way. They don’t have to be in-your-face and many are actually quite subtle. We’re huge fans of this Outerknown Big Bang pocket tee, as well as this Burton long-sleeved tee.
4. Sweaters with shorts
This combo is the epitome of surfer style. You’re on the beach, so naturally you want to be in shorts, but to be honest, it’s chilly, so a sweater is necessary, too.
There aren’t really any rules here, but generally speaking, the more worn-in the sweater, the better. Also, a hood is a smart choice no matter where you live. It’s like having a built-in umbrella, just in case.
5. Colorful sunglasses
Another key element to the surfer look is a great pair of colorful sunglasses. Bonus points if they’re mirrored and polarized.
This style serves a lot of purpose, literally blocking the sun and protecting your eyes, but we can’t help but think it epitomizes everything great about surfer culture. They’re vibrant, cheerful, sunny, and easy-breezy.
Ray-Ban is one of the reigning kings of functional sport sunglasses, and we love this bright mirrored pair. If you love the look but are on a budget, the mirrored TOMS Traveler style is awesome, too. Plus, TOMS is a notoriously socially-responsible company.
Accessories in surf culture are minimal. For men, necklaces and bracelets are common sights, but they’re earthy and manly. Think braided hemp rope, interesting shells (much more refined than the puka shell chokers that were uber-popular in the ’90s), leather, and wood.
Wear one or several, this type of jewelry tends to look even better when a few different styles are layered and worn together.
To pull off wearing jewelry like an authentic surfer, remember to keep it minimal. This braided wrap bracelet nails it, as does this beaded cord one. Looking for a necklace? This hemp and wooden bead style is our pick.
A brief history of surf culture
Early Pre-Incan tribes are believed to have been some of the first native peoples to ride waves for fun. Ancient Polynesian tribes named the group’s most capable surfer their chief. Surfing has a rich history and has long been synonymous with a certain level of freedom and admiration.
Fast-forward to the 1950s, when tourism began to increase steadily in California, Hawaii, and Australia. Unsurprisingly, the popularity of surfing also rose but was still not quite mainstream. Everything changed — rather quickly — when Elvis Presley starred in Blue Hawaii in 1961, followed by the 1962 release of the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ Safari album, in which the band members posed with a surfboard. Not long after, the widely-celebrated 1966 surf documentary The Endless Summer was released and it was official: The world was absolutely captivated by surf culture.
To cater to the ever-increasing crowds of people flocking to beaches all over the world, surf lifestyle brands began popping up. O’Neill, Rip Curl, and Billabong enjoyed international popularity with people who wanted to be a part of the surf culture, whether they had ever set foot on a surfboard or not.
A niche industry that originally started with wetsuits turned into a $13 billion a year business. Today, many surf brands are household names internationally, including Quiksilver, Roxy, Reef, Oakley, and Rainbow.
The evolution of surfer style
From its earliest days of popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, surfer style has always been about comfort, simplicity, and functionality. While the popularity of The Beach Boys and movies like Blue Hawaiian influenced brighter colors and tropical prints, fashion or trendiness was never much of a concern.
The 1970s brought more eclectic and international influences, such as psychedelic tie-dye prints and distinct, colorful ikat patterns from Oaxaca, Mexico. In the 1980s and ’90s, a crossover of the skate and snowboard industries could be seen in surf brands, which makes perfect sense. Many people who enjoy one board sport participate in others, as well.
Today, surfer style embodies all of these unique influences. It’s comfortable, functional, laid-back, but pretty stylish, too. In fact, some of the world’s top luxury design brands have gotten in on the trend in the past few seasons. It seems literally everyone wants a piece of surf style’s effortless cool.
The most important thing to know about surfer style is that it’s much, much more than just clothing — it’s a mindset and a lifestyle. Ready to make it your own? Here’s how.