by Gloria Ricci Lothrop, Ph.D.
Whitsett Professor of California History
California State University Northridge
The vigorous development of the southern California swimsuit industry in the years following World War II was the result of a number of crucial elements. In fact, a multitude of factors intervened to launch a new generation of swimsuits, bearing little resemblance to its precursors-the heavy wool bathing dress of 1900 or the 1924 favorite, the bathing slip with covered legs, a style which evolved into the dressmaker bathing suit of the 1930s and 1940s.
Changing styles were in part the result of an expanded postwar market. A review of bathing costumes featured in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar during the 1920s and 1930s reveals that "taking the sun" at spas along the Riviera or in Florida had simply replaced the earlier pastime of "taking the waters," engaged in by the privileged few with sufficient wealth and leisure to travel or cruise to resorts. As a result, high fashion bathing costumes long remained the elite domain of the couturier. By the 1940s, however, Schiaparelli and Lanvin had given way to such exclusive ready-to-wear lines as Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor. A decade later the industry was dominated by California swimwear manufacturers as revealed in Vogue's June 1953 "Coronation Issue" which featured jewel toned suits of shirred silk velvet, nylon taffeta and faille, providing a "corner on curves" and "fluid unbroken lines," manufactured by Cole of California, Caltex, Catalina and Rose Marie Reid. The broader opportunities afforded by postwar American life further stimulated the expanding sports apparel market. Americans became eager consumers of the luxuries denied them during the war years. Furthermore, nylon, rubber and various scarce fabrics were again available, allowing for "dressed up" swimsuits evocative of Polynesia and the Caribbean. Other influential trends included America's move to the suburbs, making not only backyard living, but also a backyard pool, a reasonable middle class aspiration. The postwar years also witnessed increased ease of travel, acknowledged in a Vogue editorial declaring that where traveling was once a weighty affair, the new speed and shrinking fares can lead to exotic settings where "compactness, uncrushability and lightness are of concern."
While Americans were enjoying postwar prosperity, the movie making sector of the economy found itself in straitened circumstances as a result of strikes, court order divestiture of studio-owned theatre chains, the black list, competition from foreign films and the popular lure of television. To offset the resulting pernicious decline, MGM chose to present its unfailingly successful musical within the setting of an aquacade starring former United States swimming champion Esther Williams. Perhaps the most spectacular of these musicals was Million Dollar Mermaid directed by Mervyn LeRoy with choreography by the famed Busby Berkeley who dropped Williams, wearing a bathing suit of chain mail composed of 50,000 gold flakes, from a height of fifty feet into a mass of swimmers. Helen Rose, the picture's costume designer was challenged in rendering the costume until she discovered a latex net which was attractive, swimable and would not drag the picture's star to the bottom of the pool. Thanks to Rose, in subsequent aquamusicals Williams paraded a wardrobe of theatrically stunning suits. As a result, Esther Williams became a precursor of swimsuit fashion change as female consumers clamored for copies of the sparkling, skin-tight, beaded suits. Sensing a commercial opportunity, in 1947 Williams signed a modeling contract with Cole of California which also included an annual swimsuit design named for Esther Williams. At the same time, she also successfully promoted her swimming pool company across the country. While Hollywood was struggling to recapture its former prosperity, the apparel industry was expanding, fanning out from New York City's Seventh Avenue, as far as California, especially Los Angeles, which became known for sports and beach wear. The growth of this industry drew from historic precedents, as early as 1912 local manufacturer Catalina Swimwear pioneered women's knitted swimsuits. By the 1930s the company had introduced the printed Lastex suit. Other early Los Angeles manufacturers included Cole of California, Caltex and the Elizabeth Stewart Company.
Unfortunately, many of the pioneers were hampered by "Easternites," as the California Stylist dubbed the difficulty of securing vital products from the East. The time-consuming and costly procedure was exacerbated by the fact that Eastern suppliers and bankers were skeptical about the Southern California apparel trade. Credit sources and suppliers suspected that only those who had not succeeded in New York, had made their way West. Consequently, there was widespread doubt that anything new or original would emerge from Southern California showrooms. After World War II, however, Eastern accounting firms finally opened branches in Los Angeles, joining Union Bank and Trust Company and Merchants and Manufacturers Bank of Los Angeles in providing specialized services to the apparel manufacturing industry. In an attempt to reduce costs and the inconvenience of ordering supplies from distant markets another step was taken. Western Carloading, the region's earliest rail forwarding company, was organized to consolidate orders and reduce overhead, before the early 1930s it had taken thirty days to receive Eastern fabric and trim, traditionally shipped by sea via the Panama Canal. For style merchandise requiring a rapiturn-around, shipments were consigned to Train 33 of the Santa Fe line, which took only ten days, still a far cry from the overnight delivery possible today.
The improved fortunes of southern California fashion wholesalers were further enhanced in the 1940s by federal awards of numerous military contracts and the imposition of a formula by the Office of Price Administration which comfortably sustained the industry for the duration of the war. Even federal restrictions on fabric usage had a serendipitous effect, inspiring manufacturers to produce the popular two-piece bathing suit in place of the earlier layered look. During these critical growth years, the industry's cohesiveness was reinforced by the formation of the influential textile Association of Los Angeles (TALA) and the publication, beginning in 1943, of two important trade journals, California Apparel News and the California Stylist, which energetically campaigned to end the state's "March 1 Floor Inventory Tax" which had led some manufacturers to establish headquarters in Los Angeles but conduct operations out of state.
Not only had the local apparel industry matured and organized, it now rested upon a new industrial base. First prompted by the enforced economy of the Depression era, manufacturers reduced their workforce by implementing more efficient motorized cutters, new ironing and pressing machines, and other assembly-line techniques for streamlined production. The trend was enhanced by the wartime move toward mechanized mass production, leading the apparel industry to adopt standardized sizes and more ready-to-wear apparel. Industry expansion was further enhanced by the fact that it was located in a region where industrial engineering was an accepted practice and labor was trained for manufacture, particularly in producing military supplies during the war years. As a result, a technologically trained work force was readily available to a rapidly industrializing apparel industry.
The new technology led to swimsuit designs which relied upon supple, elasticized contouring and upon carefully engineered boning. The snug fitting suits, however, required the use of fabrics which were lightweight, had recoverable elasticity and possessed dye retention and tensile qualities in the most adverse environments. Initially, rayon fiber was used. First manufactured in 1889 from the extract of the mulberry leaf; it was introduced into the United States in 1910 as artificial silk. Subsequently, American Rubber's Lastex, an extruded rubber surrounded by fiber, became a popular staple, despite its failure to retain color and design when stretched, or to retain its flex life when exposed to body oils. E. I. duPont de Nemours & Company introduced the public to the "6,6" polymer or nylon at the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. Although nylon hosiery was introduced as early as 1940, it was not until after World War II that nylon, one of the most elastic fibers available, permitting it to be both contoured and textured, was utilized in the swim suit industry. In the following decades
research scientists produced a variety of man-made textile filaments, including Dacron, Orlon, Lycra and Spandex, which alone or blended would revolutionize swim suit manufacture. The variety and flexibility of the new products inspired Harper's Bazaar editors to prophecy: "You can have a nylon-woven-with-Lastex bathing suit . . . untarnishable golden glitter in a washable material or black velvet beach shoes that can go that near the water. . . . all, all are the work of chemical men in laboratories who say to the fashion world: You tell us about style; here's what these fibers will do!"
The favorable convergence of many factors resulted in a year-round, four season cycle of bathing suit production in Southern California. The booming bathing suit business was enhanced by such Hollywood inspired promotions as lavish style shows and celebrity appearance. Undergirding the success, however, was the tradition of design, the scientific thoroughness with which the suits were tested, the marketing to an enthusiastic public and the support of a complex apparel industry which in 1997 ranks first in the United States and second in the world.
Photographs from the Cole of California Archive: Historical Re-Creation for Cole's 60th Anniversary