From Spicoli’s burner cool to every buff, bronzed, board bro character trope, California’s surf culture is as burned into pop culture as blond highlights are in sun and salt bleached hair. While wave riding itself has been happening for thousands of years, the modern American incarnation was born in the late ’50s with the popularity of Gidget and other beach culture B movies. It wasn’t until 1961, however, with the success of the Beach Boys’ first single, “Surfin’,” and subsequent 1962 album Surfin’ Safari (paralleling the simultaneous success of instrumental surf music by Dick Dale and others) that the sunny, sandy Southern California lifestyle became etched into the imaginations of even landlocked American teens with songs about girls and hot rods and road trips. While the movies gave a 90-minute glimpse into a magical, bikini-clad world and never-ending beach daze, now people had a soundtrack to play over and over again as they dreamed of wood-trimmed cars and endless white sand.
Composed of brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine, the band blended breathtaking harmonies, Chuck Berry-style rhythm, and lyrics extolling the sun-kissed Southern California life. The singles that resulted from this mash-up kicked off a musical revolution that would go on to be called the California Myth, and later the California Sound.
The Beach Boys, in one incarnation or another, still tour, but their most culturally influential era ran until about 1966 with the release of Pet Sounds, which has been hailed by Rolling Stone as second on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Ultimately the band moved away from the pure surf pop that sent them to the top of the music charts, but their early anthems to fun in the sun and surfing still account for their broadest cultural impact.
Every time you buy a pair of board shorts from TJ Maxx or see an accountant in a Hawaiian shirt throw a shaka as he quaffs a drink with an umbrella in it, it’s because of the now $13 billion surf industry that slipped into wide-eyed American teens’ DNA on those sweet, energetic Beach Boys tunes.
Sure, it can be easy cynically scoff at the idea of a person who’s never been anywhere near the ocean copping surfer style, but let’s be honest: It’s summer, it’s sunny, and why the hell shouldn’t we all embrace some laid-back vibes and fun in the sun? Anyone who’s hating on it is just jealous, anyway. (And remember, only one of the Beach Boys was a surfer.)
The modern incarnation of surf gear is, like any cutting edge sport, pretty high tech. But for the layman, i.e., most of us, the key is to embrace the OG style instead. Here are a few of our favorite, timeless items so you can make the maximum impact when you roll up to the local Tiki bar.
While the early Beach Boys favored striped shirts much like a barbershop quartet would wear, we recommend going with the Hawaiian, or Aloha, shirt instead. These brightly colored floral button downs are an obvious place to start—less Magnum PI and more Elvis in Blue Hawaii. A good tip is to avoid the really wild designs and weird fabrics (no Rayon) and instead go for something subtler in lightweight cotton, silk, or linen. Patagonia’s Aloha shirt is so iconic it has its own book documenting the design’s history. Similarly, Honolulu-based clothing company Tori Richards has been making their version for nearly 60 years, with as much as 100 hours of design going into one pattern. Reyn Spooner is another Hawaiian heritage brand, a partnership between clothier Reyn McCullough and native Waikiki seamstress Ruth Spooner which has been producing Aloha designs for half a century.
It can seem like there are more versions, makers, and designs of board shorts out there than there are people to wear them. That said, it takes more than a couple of polyester leg tubes and lace up waist to make a great pair. Avoid the urge to go below the knee or get a pair that’s crazy baggy, and when paired with a patterned shirt definitely go solid color. Back in 1952 a guy named Jack O’Neill founded the world’s first surf shop in a San Francisco garage, where he pioneered wetsuit design. They soon also made board shorts, and now offer dozens of water-tested, casually appropriate designs. Another historic brand is Birdwell Beach Britches, founded in 1961 when Carrie Birdwell started making and selling beach wear in her Southern California home. Birdwell’s 303 Mid is a solid, all-around short, and as truly heritage as you can get.
Nothing says beach vibes like bare feet. But since you can’t just roam the earth without any foot protection, flip flops will have to do. Technically described as “thong sandals,” they get their slang name from the sound they make as they slap against your feet when you walk in them. Simplicity being key, this is one of the rare style situations where the $5 item from your local drug store will serve you almost as well aesthetically as something from a top designer. But your feet deserve the best, right? Right. A damn solid choice is Reef’s J-Bay III, which classes it up ever so slightly with full grain leather, recycled materials, and a suede-lined EVA padded footbed. Those seeking deeper roots and a more soulful vibe will gravitate toward Rainbow Sandals’ Classic. Another garage startup story, Rainbow was born in 1972 when Jay Longely began making ultra-small runs of these comfortable, famously super-durable flip flops to sell to his friends at Hobie Surfboards. Expecting temps to drop? OK, well in that case it’s hard to go wrong with the modern-classic look of a pair of Vans.
The Surf Shirt
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, before surfers wore specially designed wetsuits, surfers would cover their bodies in petroleum jelly and wear wool Pendleton shirts over it to stay warm. In fact, the Pendleton shirt was so ingrained into the culture at the time that the Beach Boys were originally called the Pendletones. Pendleton still makes that same design, called the Board Shirt, and if you’re going to get it, definitely go with the original blue surf plaid. And yes, you can still look authentic without covering yourself in Vaseline. Unless that’s what you’re into, in which case maybe keep it to yourself and good luck getting the stains out of the wool.