The Swimwear Industry

In the years following World War I, American manufacturers of ready-made swimwear, most of them based on the West Coast, played a major role in setting fashion trends, and in creating a mass market for fashionable swimwear. The first Jantzen swimming suits, introduced in the late 1910s, were knit in a double-sided rib stitch, which added elasticity and made knitted suits much more practical. The company's innovative advertising campaigns in the 1920s, often featuring Olympic champion swimmers such as Johnny Weissmuller, helped to popularize swimming as well as Jantzen bathing suits, and by 1930 Jantzen was the largest swimwear manufacturer in the world. Catalina and Cole of California, which became major competitors to Jantzen in the late 1920s, emphasized appearance and styling in their suits and advertisements; Catalina became associated with the Miss America pageant, and Cole with Hollywood glamour. Competition between these manufacturers, joined by B.V.D. in

1929, drove changes in swimwear styles and technology through much of the twentieth century.

When feminine curves returned to fashion around

1930, manufacturers began to find ways of shaping the body within the suit, using darts, seaming, and strategically placed elastic to uplift and emphasize the bust. The most important innovation, however, was Lastex, an elastic yarn consisting of an extruded rubber core covered in cotton, rayon, silk, acetate, or wool, which was introduced

Century Rayon

Bikini bras in production. Treated fabric, having been stretched over a plastic mold, is about to be baked in order to set its shape and create bikini brassieres. These bras were manufactured in 1949, but it was not until the 1960s that bikinis caught on in the United States. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

Bikini bras in production. Treated fabric, having been stretched over a plastic mold, is about to be baked in order to set its shape and create bikini brassieres. These bras were manufactured in 1949, but it was not until the 1960s that bikinis caught on in the United States. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

in 1931 and soon revolutionized the industry. It could be used in both knitted and woven fabrics, gave improved fit and figure control, and allowed designers to add supporting layers, such as brassieres and tummy-control panels, without adding bulk to the silhouette. Lastex-based fabrics, some also incorporating new synthetic yarns, were soon available in a variety of textures and surface treatments, including stretch satins, velvets, shirred cottons, and novelty knits. All-rubber suits, made of embossed rubber sheeting, were introduced in 1932, and were an inexpensive option throughout the decade, though they were easily torn, and sometimes peeled away from the body in pounding surf. Rubber found more practical application in bathing caps, which now fit close to the head to keep the hair dry, and in bathing shoes, many of which were molded rubber facsimiles of street footwear.

The 1930s were also when swimwear manufacturers first turned to Hollywood for style ideas and promotional tie-ins. Jantzen, Catalina, and B.V.D. began to use Hollywood stars in their advertising campaigns, and formed alliances with movie studios and studio designers, lending mass-produced suits an air of Hollywood glamour. Bathing suits worn by stars in films and publicity photos became a major source of swimwear fashion. For example, the strapless sarong-like costumes worn by Dorothy

Esther Williams Publicity Stills

Esther Williams poses in a bathing suit in 1945. Esther Williams achieved stardom and box office success with a number of "swimming movies" in the 1940s and 1950s, musicals that featured elaborate aquatic dances and that showcased her swimming talents. © Bettmann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

Esther Williams poses in a bathing suit in 1945. Esther Williams achieved stardom and box office success with a number of "swimming movies" in the 1940s and 1950s, musicals that featured elaborate aquatic dances and that showcased her swimming talents. © Bettmann/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

Lamour, first seen in the 1936 film Jungle Princess, immediately inspired manufacturers to include sarong suits in their lines, and helped set a fashion for tropical prints in swimwear.

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