Pam Fierro talks about the evolution of vintage swimwear from the 1920s through the 1980s. She discusses the changing styles, famous designers, and the various materials that were used. Pam can be contacted via her blog, Glamoursplash.
I started collecting swimwear in 2000 or 2001. I really like how vintage swimwear looks on people. It accentuates the body as opposed to showing everything off, like the modern string bikinis do. It’s more modest and tasteful, and it helps to accentuate the good things that your body has while covering up the flaws that you don’t want everyone else to see.
After looking at some of the older designers from the 1930s and ’40s, I learned who made which suits, and why. Now I have favorite designers, and I’m always on the lookout for pieces by them.
In order to augment my collection, I began selling some items. I initially started on eBay, like a lot of other people. The more I sold, the more I bought. It just kept rolling, so I decided to build a website, Glamoursurf, in the summer of 2007. I focused on swimwear and vintage lingerie, because they go hand-in-hand for me. Everything just took off from there.
I started writing articles and putting resource materials together because I would constantly get questions from other people, like “Can you help me date this?” or “Can you give me an idea who this designer is?” The more I got into it, the more I started learning about it myself. Every month I sent an article to my list of subscribers—I’m constantly putting more information on my site.
This year, I decided to start a blog. I was probably late in the game, but I just had so much other stuff going on before. The blog initially focused on vintage clothing in general, but then I decided to really focus on swimwear there, too.
As far as my selling goes, I focus on all eras because people look for all eras. There are people who are only interested in the 1920s suits, and there are people who are interested in the ’30s and ’40s when the first two piece came out. There’s a definite market for the ’50s stuff, and things from ’60s are starting to get more popular again. Recently, I’ve been selling a lot of ’70s pieces, too. It goes with the times. Everything has this cyclical pattern. But I’ve noticed that some of the strongest sales are for things from the 1950s, which I think comes from the gals who do pinup modeling and burlesque, as well as other people who just like to wear it out on the beach.
Collectors Weekly: Who are some of your favorite designers?
Fierro: I love Claire McCardell, and I really like Rudi Gernreich and Elsa Schiaparelli, although I don’t have anything by Schiaparelli yet. I like Christian Dior, and I would love to find a piece by Jean Patou or Chanel. Rose Marie Reid has done some fabulous pieces, as have Esther Williams, DeWeese, Catalina, and Jantzen. I have a lot of pieces by Jantzen because they have such a long history in swimwear. They were one of the first big collections that I put together.
Jantzen started in early 1900s. Before swimsuits were called swimsuits they were called bathing costumes. Those were the knee-length dresses that came along with the pantaloons and water shoes or boots. Back in the Edwardian era, men and women weren’t allowed to bathe together, and the whole body had to be covered.
Not many people knew how to swim during those times. Swimming didn’t come into vogue until the 1920s as a fitness craze. Jantzen actually picked up on that and coined an advertising term for themselves: the suit that changed bathing into swimming. They have the Jantzen diving girl, which is the red diving girl symbol that they started using in the 1920s. They provided stickers for store displays, and people loved them so much that they started putting it on the window shields of their cars. That’s when this whole big craze with Jantzen developed.
They changed the whole thought process from bathing to swimming, and they worked with different materials that helped with sunning and tanning. They created suits that allowed women to uncover their shoulders so that they could get an even tan. They started using different materials that gave a little more elasticity to the suits and was more form fitting. Women loved that because, as opposed to having these old, soggy cotton or wool suits, they could actually wear something that showed off their figure. It became more acceptable to the general public to have the female silhouette be something that was beautiful and not covered up.
Jantzen even had color-harmony guides that told women how to match their lipstick and nail polish to their swimsuit. They had different kinds of advertising programs, and they provided suits for the Olympics.
Catalina was another big player. They started promoting things like beauty pageants, so their swimwear was seen on models in Miss America pageants. This gave them visibility similar to Jantzen’s.
Collectors Weekly: What materials were used to make bathing suits?
Fierro: The earlier suits were often made out of jersey. Wool was popular, as was silk. Then rayon was promoted as artificial silk.
Nylon came about in 1938, which was revolutionary for the swimwear market. Another innovation was Lastex, which came out in the late ’50s. In the 1960s, a lot of different fibers started coming out like Bri-nylon, rayon jersey, and Lycra. Those were very influential on the swimwear market as far as being able to dry quickly or being more form fitting and less see-through.
Collectors Weekly: What was the public reaction to the swimsuit as it evolved?
Fierro: In the 1920s, people had to wear full suits. You could get arrested for showing your knees. Annette Kellerman was a big influence on swimwear. She was arrested for showing her knees and taking off her stockings, but she took her case to court and won because she said that she couldn’t swim in stockings. So that opened things up a lot. Women were now able to show their legs.
Another big influence on swimwear was the fabric restrictions during the war. You began to see cutouts in strategic places. In the ’40s, the midriff might have a triangle cutout, for example, because manufacturers could only use so much fabric to create swimwear.
As time went on, swimwear became increasingly skimpier. Hollywood had a big influence on that. Actresses couldn’t show their belly buttons in movies because it was considered indecent until the late ’50s. In the early ’60s, when that restriction was lifted, real two-piece, below-the-navel bikinis were shown.
As we moved into the ’60s, there was the itsy bitsy tennie weenie bikini, and surf movies started to become really popular. In the ’70s, the Brazilian tan came along. America is probably the last to accept these kinds of things. Europe and other areas were a little more on the forefront than we were, but once it took, it definitely took.
Collectors Weekly: Did swimsuits reflect any other fashion trends?
Fierro: I think they did, definitely. In the ’50s, you see a lot of boning, and the busts started to have linings. Torpedo bras came into vogue in the ’50s. So that style also influenced swimwear. And there were play suits, which were just a short romper with elastic underneath to be worn as a one-piece swimsuit. But then the ladies would have skirts that could be worn over the play suits, so you could go from the beach to a party and not have to change out of everything.
There were also two-timers, which were beachwear cover-ups. And Catalina developed the Sweethearts line, which included matching men’s and women’s swimwear fashion, so couples could wear the same pattern.
In the ’60s, there were some bathing suits made with metallic fabrics, like the space-age fashion, and there were certain swim caps that reflected the hats worn during that era. Swim caps were huge in the ’50s so people could protect the hairstyles that they spent so much time putting together.
Collectors Weekly: Did men’s swimwear evolve at the same rate as women’s?
Fierro: Back in the 1920s, bathing suits were unisex. Women’s suits may have been cut lower in the armholes and stuff, but the first suits were unisexual.
Men weren’t permitted to go topless on the beach until the late 1930s. Jantzen developed a men’s suit called the topper—the top zipped off from the bottom so that it could be taken off and only the bottom piece could be worn. A lot of the men’s suits started to be belted at that time.
Then in the ’40s, one-piece suits were popular again, and the legs were cut high. They started to be cut lower in the ’50s. And then in the late ’50s, the boxer-type look came out, which predominated in the ’60s as well with the big surf culture. You started to see longer board shorts and surf shorts for men. I don’t think it was as dramatic as the women’s evolution, but they definitely evolved through the centuries.
Collectors Weekly: Were bathing suits mass-produced or made by hand?
Fierro: They were mass-produced by machines. The first wool suits were woven on machines, and then Jantzen developed the rib knit suit, for which the woolen knit was mass-produced and then made into swimsuits.
Rose Marie Reid started designing her own suits because she wanted to swim and she couldn’t find anything that always suited her. And Esther Williams, who was popular with all her swim movies, started designing some of her own swimsuits because the suits that were being made for her didn’t allow her to move in the water as much as she needed to. Or they would create a suit for her that was white or ivory, and she’d get into the water and it would show through. She had a lot of influence in Hollywood, so she helped designers understand how suits had to actually move with her body in the water.
Collectors Weekly: How were vintage swimsuits sized?
Fierro: Early suits from the ’20s and ’30s were mostly sold by chest size. So you’d see 32, 34, 36, 38, etcetera. I’ve seen sizes from the ’50s that are labeled 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, but their sizes are different from those we have now. They were definitely cut smaller. Even the measurements provided in patterns varied through the decades. Since the ’90s, though, it’s been mostly small, medium, large, and extra large although there are manufacturers who also mark by 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, etc.
Collectors Weekly: What would a typical vintage beach outfit include?
Fierro: You’d obviously have the swimsuit, and then towels that would go with it, matching beach bags, sometimes matching hats. Sunglasses and umbrellas were in vogue, and sometimes you’d have beach blankets as well. Beach robes were popular in the ’20s and ’30s, and beach pajamas were popular in the ’30s—they were like a wide-legged one-piece overall, more like sportswear. And in the ’50s, you’d see the skirts or the toppers, which was like a cover-up.
Collectors Weekly: How do you identify what era a swimsuit is from?
Fierro: It’s really all about the cut, although the label and the materials used have a lot to do with it, too. Like I mentioned, in the ’50s, we begin to see boning and padding in the bust and other support mechanisms, and they have metal zippers on the back.
“Jantzen changed the thought process from bathing to swimming, and they created suits that allowed women to get an even tan.”
A lot of swimsuits from the ’60s have buttons on the shoulders. They still have padding, but it’s not the same padding or support that was used in the ’50s.
Different things like elastic came into play in the ’50s, which gave a lot of fit to the backs and insides of suits. The leg openings tell you a lot—how high or how low they’re cut. If it has care instructions, that tells me it wasn’t made until the ’70s. So labels, materials, the construction, and the style help to determine the era.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the different types of swimsuit styles?
Fierro: There are a lot of different names for the different styles of swimsuits. Dressmaker suits, which are the skirted-looking suits, became popular in the 1920s and ’30s. You had the panel suit before that, which was the typical unisex woolen suit with longer shorts but with a skirted panel that was fitted all the way around.
The diaper suit by Claire McCardell came out in the ’40s. It was a one-piece that wrapped around and looked like a diaper on the bottom. The bikini was officially released in 1946, and the 1950s saw the play suit, the romper, and bubble suit, which had more of a fitted top with a little bubble at the hip.
In the ’60s, Rudi Gernreich designed the monokini, a topless one-piece with straps that went over the shoulders, and in the ’70s, he designed the tanga thong. That was one of the first thong swimsuits. The string bikini became popular in the ’70s, as well as tan-through swimsuits. Influenced by the fitness craze, the trikini came out in the’80s. It was a three-piece suit, so you could take off the outer piece and then go around in your bikini. There were a lot of different types of suits, and I’m sure I haven’t covered them all.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have a specific cut or style that you like more than others?
Fierro: I love the suits from the ’50s. There were a lot of different suits and styles, and it goes back to accentuating the body as opposed to having it all hang out. And I love all Claire McCardell’s work. She’s my holy grail. She was an influence in the swimwear industry before anybody else and she created beautiful suits.
Collectors Weekly: What makes a bathing suit rare?
Fierro: Condition has a lot to do with it. A lot of the older suits have a lot of damage, especially stuff from the ’20s. It’s getting increasingly hard to find iconic suits from the ’20s that are still in good shape without moth holes or damage, and many are faded or just don’t hold their shape anymore.
Jean Patou was an influential designer in the ’20s, and his stuff is becoming harder to find. I would love to find a suit by him. He used a lot of monograms.
Pieces that stars wore, like the rhinestone-studded suit Esther Williams wore in her movies, or suits by anyone who was influential in the industry, like Schiaparelli and Rudi Gernreich, are hard to come by. We’re talking museum-quality pieces.
Collectors Weekly: Can you recommend any research books?
Fierro: There are some fabulous books out there. I really like The Swimsuit by Sarah Kennedy. There’s also California Casual by Maureen Reilly, and Making Waves by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker. Sunkissed by Joshua James Curtis is a nice eye-candy book. It doesn’t have a lot of information in it, but it’s great for looking at the different swimsuits throughout the ages. I have couple more on my bookshelf that I refer to every now and again, like The Bikini Book by Universe Publishing and Swimwear in Vogue by Christina Probert.
Then there are different biographies. Esther Williams has a bio called The Million Dollar Mermaid, and Rose Marie Reid has a bio written by Carole Reid Burr and Roger Peterson. Then there’s the history of the Vanity Fair Corporation, which now owns Jantzen, so it has a little bit of information about Jantzen in it.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have advice for people who might be new to collecting swimwear?
Fierro: Just like anything worth collecting, focus on what you like. I would say to be really careful about the condition of the piece. You don’t want it to have any dry rot on the elastic because that’s not going to hold up, and it’s just going to keep disintegrating. So focus on pieces that are in really good condition, and store them away from direct sunlight and not just bunched up. Storage in an environment that’s not going to fluctuate from really hot to really cold is important.
If you’re going to wear your vintage swimwear, be careful, because chemicals that are used nowadays will break down your swimsuits in time. Take it out and rinse it very well after you’ve worn it. Roll it in a towel. Don’t squeeze it out or dry it in direct sunlight and in the dryer. And don’t put it in the washer, because a lot of times you’ll have fabrics whose colors will bleed. Yes, you can wear it, but you have to give it the same respect you would any other piece of vintage clothing.
(All images in this article courtesy Pam Fierro of Glamoursplash.)