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The Bathing Suit
This is not a history of the bathing suit, but a mini-tour of some of the suits in my personal collection  (or in some cases, that I previously sold).
Look for more to be added, as I'm always on the lookout for great old swimsuits.


This great bathing suit dates to 1911. It is made from cotton that has a kind of water-resistant finish. It's called the "Swim Easy", and I guess it was easier swimming in this suit than in the standard heavy wool suits of the time!

The suit is made in one piece, with the bloomers attached to the dress. To get into it, you stepped into it through the neck, which unbuttons to allow a big enough entry. I like the nautical look of it, with the red and white striped trim around the neck and sleeves.

Keep in mind that the bather would also be wearing black stockings and bathing shoes, and a hat, scarf or mobcap on the head!


c. 1917

This late teens swimdress would have had a pair of matching bloomers beneath.


This cute swim suit is actually one piece, though it looks like two. The bloomers are attached to the dress at the waist. It's made of very fine wool, or possibly a thick cotton, and the designs are embroidered in wool yarn. By the early 20s, suits were sleeveless, and you can see the beginnings of the tank top.

Still, stockings would have been worn with this suit, but would have been rolled down to expose a tiny bit of skin on the legs. What's amazing is how fussy this suit is, with the tie belt, button shoulders , and fancy needlework. In just a very few summers, this suit would have looked downright dowdy!


Early 1920s

In the early 20s knit bathing suits for men and for women became very similar.  Both often sported a modesty over-skirt.  The best way to determine if the suit is for a man or for a woman is by the armholes.  Men's armholes tended to be larger than those of women.

c. 1926

By the mid 1920s, the tank suit was becoming more popular, but the trunks were very often covered by a modesty panel. This panel was used on both men's and women's suits, and continued into the 1930s.

These bathing suits were made from a wool knit, very similar to the stitch that was being used for sweaters at the time.  The wool suits fit well when dry, but as soon as the wearer got them wet, they began to sag and stretch.  And they absorbed quite a fit of water so they became very heavy.

The patch is an American Red Cross lifeguard's patch.

c 1920s

This wool suit could have been made anytime in the 1920s through the mid 30s. It is a basic tank and trunks suit that could have been worn by either a man or a woman. It was not considered decent for a man to go tankless until around 1930.

Bradley Knitting Company was started in Delavan, Wisconsin, in 1904.  It was a major manufacturing facility, and that small town's chief employer.  During peak production, 1200 persons were employeed at Bradley.

Bradley made all kinds of knitted garments, but is best remembered for their knit wool bathing suits.  Their specialty was sportswear, and their slogan in the early years was "Slip into a Bradley and Out-of-doors." 


In 1928 the great Elsa Schiaparelli designed knit bathing suits which were based on her famous trompe l'oeil sweaters.  These were imported into the USA by Saks 5th Avenue.  This suit, while not made by Schiaparelli, was certainly inspired by her designs.  It was probably made in the US, and was sold by Saks 5th Avenue's lower-cost cousin, Saks and Co.



This is a women's suit and is style 35 as pictured in the 1929 Jantzen catalog.  A similar suit was made in 1928 but the colors were different.  It is made from wool, and the original cost was $5.50.

This suit was never worn and retains the original paper label that has attached wool yarn with which to make mends.

Note that the labels reads Sept.6, 1921.  This is not the date of the swimsuit; it is the date that the method of constructing the suit was patented.


This suit is a true classic! Jantzen made versions of it for several years because it was so popular. This suit dates to 1930.

The Diving Girl was first used by Jantzen in 1920, and it became an instantly recognizable symbol of the company. As styles changed, so did the red diving girl, and the style of her suit can be a hint as to the age of the garment.

 Through the 1920s and 1930s, Jantzen refined their basic swimsuit into the modern bathing suit. Swimwear continued to be the most important part of their business, but in 1941, they expanded into sportswear and underwear. During the mid and late 40s, Louella Ballerino did collections for Jantzen.

C. 1932

Swimsuit makers continued to use knit wool through the 1930s, though other fabrics were making inroads. This great two-toned wool suit shows how the suits were revealing a bit more, but that modesty skirt is still in place. The wearer could un-do the bottom ties to show an extra bit of leg.

Two-toned suits were very popular from the 1920s and into the 30s.  Many of them are very Art Deco inspired, with geometric shapes knit into the design. The label in this suit reads "Allen A." a firm about which I know nothing.


This suit was made by Jantzen in 1936.  This particular design was called "The Up-lifter" and was made from the new Lastex/wool blends that were revolutionizing the swimsuit.  Lastex made for a better fit and reduced drooping of the fabric.


c. 1938

This late 1930s Jantzen swimsuit is made of knit rayon, which is from American Enka, a rayon processing plant that was located about ten miles from where I live.  I've seen this same print in an ad for American Enka, in which it featured a two piece suit.  

Early 1940s

This great suit has a halter top and a skirted bottom. It's made from printed cotton with a jersey knit lining. This suit belonged to actress June Allyson, and features a fun novelty print.

Chenille Cape Cover-up

The bathing suit form used in this picture is a vintage store form from the Rose Marie Reid company.


In 1946, designer Louella Ballerino designed this suit for Jantzen using a fabric from the Bates Company. The two piece was relatively new, having been first shown by Carolyn Schnurer in 1931, but taking almost a decade before gaining popular approval.

U.S. Rubber bathing sandals


This great suit from Tina Leser was featured in a 1948 issue of Holiday magazine. 

Early 1950s

Pink and black was a common color combination in the 1950s, and after seeing this cute suit, it's easy to see why. The styling looks almost like a child's suit, and there in the early days of the baby boom it was common to see mother/daughter matching sets. So it's quite likely this suit had a younger sister!

Early 50s Beach Shoes.  By the mid 1950s, the beach shoe was pretty much replaced by thong sandals.

Early 1950s

Swimsuits in the 1950s often resembled the styling of dresses of the period.  Imagine this adorable suit with a longer skirt, and you get the idea.


1950s rubberized beach bag


Rose Marie Reid got into the swimsuit business in 1937 when she couldn't find a suit that met her needs as a swimmer. From the beginning, her suits were sculpted, much in the manner of evening dresses of the era, with elaborate cuts that incorporated draping, tucks and pleats and shirring.

In 1951 she came out with the Hourglass Maillot. Reid was quoted in the Oct. 1952, California Stylist:

"The hourglass maillot, with firmly boned midriff with soft folds of a bra, soft shirred bloomers...is the keynote of the couturier group."

c. 1950s

After the war, swimsuit makers started using Lastex, an early form of Spandex, to make swimsuits that shaped and flattered. Bathing suits very often mirrored the styles of the period, and in the 1950s, women were quite shapely. The bathing suit followed suit.  Bathing suits of this time also had a glamourous look to them.  The styling of this suit could easily be made into an evening gown.

This suit is made from a synthetic blend and Lastex. Synthetics developed for war-use soon found their way into the postwar wardrobe.  A big advantage to using lastex was its ability to fit snugly, and to actually "shape" the wearer, much like the commonly worn girdle did.  I imagine that all the young baby-boom mothers loved suits like this that allowed them to look shapely even though there were a few spare post-baby pounds still to lose!


c. 1955

This pretty suit is by one of the great American sportswear designers, Tina Leser. Leser did swimsuits for GaBar for years. In contrast to the "Bombshell" look so often associated with the 1950s, Leser's suits were flattering to many different figure types. She was known for her use of embroidery and exotic fabrics.

Leser for GaBar label

Late 1950s

This cute swimsuit from Catalina has several features that were very popular in the 1950s. Plaid fabric was popular in the very early 50s, and then again near the end of the decade. Boy legs, which gave the swimsuit the look of a playsuit were also popular. And the suit has dressmaker touches - things that were associated with a dress, such as rick-rack trim and button decoration. Often, these had matching skirts which when worn over the swimsuit, looked like a sundress. So this suit could go from the pool to the market, and even out to lunch!

Catalina Sportswear was founded in 1928 when its founder, Edgar W. Stewart changed the name of a mill he owned, Pacific Knitting Mills. The company was located in Los Angeles, and they used their location near Hollywood as part of their glamorous image.

In the 1940s they hired several of Hollywood's most famous designers to work on designs for them. These included Orry Kelly, Edith Head and Travis Banton. The head designer at Catalina was Mary Ann DeWeese, who left during the 1960s to form her own company, DeWeese Designs.

c. 1958

Here's another suit from Tina Leser, this one a little later that the one above. It's made from woven nylon, in a typical Leser print. As always, Leser suits were great at hiding figure flaws!

c. 1959

This is a true classic from Rudi Grenreich. He became famous in 1964 for his "topless" bathing suit, but Gernreich had been making bathing suits for nine years before designing that controversial suit. This one is very typical of the great designs he was doing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were made from wool, but were light years away from the wool suits of thirty years before! This one was made in the very late 1950s by Westwood Mills.

U.S. Rubber fringed bathing cap

C. 1960

This purple suit from Jantzen dates to the very late 1950s or early 1960s. There is no internal structure like you find in most 1950s suits, but the modesty panel is still present. The fabric is very stretchy, and has shiny flecks throughout.

Notice how the Jantzen logo diving girl has changed from the 1930 one!


c. 1962

Another beauty from Tina Leser.  This swim dress is made from cotton pique.  The pink flowers are machine embroidered, and the blossoms are fringed.  It's an effect Leser must have been fond of, as I have two more pieces that have a similar treatment.  Below is an early 60s swim cover-up from Leser.

c. 1964

During the 60s, the two piece came into its own, probably encouraged by movies such as Bikini Beach and Gidget. This suit from the mid 60s has Gidget written all over it! The bottoms have cute boy-cut legs, almost like shorts.  No wonder Moon-Doggie was so smitten!


The Scandal Suit, the earth-shattering 1964 design by Margit Fellegi for Cole of California.  At the time, Lycra was still new, and it was the development of new fabrics containing Lycra that enabled Fellegi to make this suit - so bare, yet so covered up.

The Scandal was basicly just a maillot with strategic bits made from a fabric containing Lycra, and cut outs being replaced with a stretchy mesh.  Fellegi worked with fabric makers for months developing both mesh and fabric, and the result was that she was able to "slice up the body any way I want to."

The first of the Scandal suits were shown to Cole sales representatives in September of 1964.  The show was stunning, and many salesmen declared it would not fly in the more conservative parts of the country.  But Cole was committed, with a huge ad compaign already in the works, an ad campaign centered around the line, "Isn't it time somebody created an absolutely wild scandal for nice girls?"  This line was uttered by a young lady perched on a brass bed on a beach.  Yes, this was scandalous in 1965!

It was also successful.  The suit was on the cover of the New York Times, and featured in an article in Life magazine.  Imitations soon flooded the market.  It seems as if American women were ready to be a little daring!


Mid 1960s

Bathing suits continued to mirror fashion.  Here, you can see the influence of the hip-hugger and of the dropped waist skirt that was so popular in the mid 1960s.  Suddenly, bellybuttons were visible.

C. 1966

This great suit is made from denim, and is lined in a cotton "flower power" fabric. It dates to the mid to late 1960s and has a lot of the fashion influences that were present in clothing. It looks almost like the dresses that were being worn in the late 1960s, and it wasn't a whole lot shorter than many of them!


c. 1967

The demure two piece suits of the early 1960s were soon replaced with the bikini. And while this one looks modest by today's standard, it was the skimpiest suit yet!

Cover-up from Nina Ricci

c. 1970

This great swimsuit includes matching maxi skirt coverup.  Inspired by Emilio Pucci, it is from Catalina.



Here is another Pucci-inspired print.  By the early 1970s the halter top was gaining favor, both for swimsuits and also for evening dresses.


This cute little halter top bikini was made by Beach Party.


In the 1980s artist Peter Max did a line of clothing called Neo-Max. Max is most often associated with the work he did in the 1960s, but the bright colors coupled with black were just right for the 1980s. This line was designed by Max and produced by the Rose Marie Reid company as a line for a younger customer.

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