Friday, June 8, 2012

Wartime Swimsuits Storm the Beaches

This piece is cross-posted from Iron as Needed.

Nicole White

"During World War II, the pinup girl became popular. And wearing a skimpy swimsuit was patriotic -- it was considered doing your part for the war effort."
                                                    -Anna Cole, swimwear designer

Ava Gardner, Actress/Pin-up Girl
As enthusiastic crowds flock to sandy beaches this summer, swimsuits will be disappearing from store racks at a rapid rate. Once very modest and made of impractical fabrics such as wool, women's beachwear has drastically evolved since the early 1900s.

In the 1920s, Coco Chanel popularized the "sun tan" when she spent a bit too much time in the French Riviera and returned with a sun-kissed glow. Chanel's accidental tan was reason enough for women everywhere to adopt lying in the sun for leisure as a new form of relaxation. This hot new trend did wonders for the fashion world of swimwear.
Esther Williams Poolside in 1944
It was in the early 1940s, when war rationing extended to fabric, that the two-piece swimsuit baring some midriff really took off. Designers shortened tops and removed the extra skirt panel covering the thighs to save on fabric consumption, but still kept the navel strategically covered with a high-waisted bottom. Wartime pin-up girls like Ava Gardner, Esther Williams, and Rita Hayworth gained attention and heightened the popularity of these swimsuits among young females. 
Cole of California
Wartime Swimsuit Ad 
Fred Cole, a silent film actor and founder of Cole of California, transformed his family's knit underwear business into a swimwear success by bringing Hollywood glamour to the beach. During the war, Cole of California also made parachutes for the Air Force and marketed this tidbit in their swimsuit ads to boost sales among patriotic Americans.

When asked about upcoming swim fashions for an issue of The Evening Independent published on November 15, 1945, Cole said, "We want to keep 'em bare, but flattering. We want 'em functional, but beautiful. And the average figure is bad." Not sure if he'd get away with the latter part of that statement in today's society, but honest, nonetheless. The article went on to say, "With the average figure in mind, Mr. Cole does swim shorts in elasticized shirred treatments which have the effect of a girdle."
After the war was over, French designer Louis Reard debuted the bikini, which exposed much more skin than its predecessor. He named it the "bikini" after the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, the site of U.S. nuclear tests. Simultaneously in 1946, Jacques Heim, another French designer, came out with his version of the bikini and called it the "atome" (French for atom) and donned it "the world's smallest bathing suit." Reard then advertised his suit as "smaller than the world's smallest bathing suit." It was still considered improper to reveal one's navel in the 40s, so although it was available, the bikini was not worn by the masses until much later. 
My Version of
Norma Kamali's Design
Norma Kamali's Fringed 40s Pin-up
Swimsuit on
Retro 40s pin-up style swimsuits are making a comeback this season. Designers such as Yves Saint LaurentChloé, and Dolce & Gabbana have all perfected the high-waisted two-piece delights. One of my favorite websites to virtually "window" shop is I was recently looking for a retro swimsuit and stumbled across the most exquisite one I had ever laid eyes on, by Norma Kamali. After seeing its shocking price of  $1,500 (and no, your eyes are not deceiving you), I knew I'd have to attempt sewing it myself. I purchased black swimsuit fabric and 17 yards of fringe. I had no idea how tedious sewing all the layers and layers of fringe would be or the challenge of perfecting the fit until I started cutting and sewing. After many hours spent constructing this suit, I now understand why it is listed for $1,500. Actually, quite a bargain after all! The most ironic thing about this little treasure is that it states on, "To get the best from this Norma Kamali piece we advise you do not wear it to swim." Happy lounging (I wouldn't dare set foot in the water wearing mine)!

2 comments: said...

nice written

hcr said...

Nicole, this is fascinating. Who knew?! Love that you made your own version of that suit, too. It always amuses me when people talk about cooking and blacksmithing and sewing and so on as if it's unskilled labor. "Anyone can sew on a button," right? But, in fact, those are quite skilled professions, as anyone who has tried to sew elastic-- or bake in a wood-fired oven-- can attest. A good perspective when teaching history!

Gotta go lay in the sun now....