As a necessary piece of surfing equipment, the wetsuit, for a vast majority of surfers worldwide, is outranked only by the surfboard itself. Unlike boards, however, wetsuits have none of the mystique or glamour. "They are the airplanes of the surfing world," writer Ted Endo noted in 2012. "They  allow us to do something miraculous (survive cold water for hours on end) and yet they are completely taken for granted."

The wetsuit developed out of World War II-funded developments in plastics and...