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Great Shapes at the Beach:
Swimsuits of the1950

Hanging out at the pool in the 1950’s was a popular activity for all ages, but for women then as now, what was above those bare legs was considered a major fashion statement. A transitional time for swim wear, the 50’s saw bathing suits ranging from the modest bloomer or pleated skirts look to those famous body hugging silhouettes worn by pin-up girls to the two-piece sporty type . . . with a few daring young women opting for the bikini, a style that began to emerge at the very end of the decade.

Even though for most of the 50’s a woman’s bosom and her derriere were pretty much completely covered, the emphasis was on suits that held you in and practically created a body for you. There was under-wiring, there were elasticized strips, there were bones, there were built-in bras, there were built-in panty girdles—everything needed to make the body into what it really might not be at all. .

One-piece suits made up the majority of all sales, but some women liked the two-piece shorts and bra-top look.  Belly buttons were always a no-show, however; shorts came squarely up to the waist and often featured matching fabric belts.

One prominent name in the 1950’s swimsuit business was Fred Cole whose parents owned the West Coast Knitting Mills.  After developing an elastic-type fabric called Matletex, Cole was able to offer women becoming suits that helped “create” their shapes.  Cole, who had been a star of silent films, recruited a well-known Hollywood icon, Esther William (the undisputed swimming queen of the movies) as a spokesperson for his suits.  Cole’s daughter Anne would later come aboard and add her signature designs to the collection.

Jantzen was another popular swimsuit manufacturer during the 1950’s.  A two-page spread ad in Seventeen magazine leads off with the words “blue is for boys” and then proceeds to explain the attention a young lady would receive from boys should she wear any of the following suits which all give “shape insurance—does wheat your bra and girdle do for you”: Jantzen’s exclusive elasticized cotton gabardine, heavenly paradise blue $16.95 . . . Caprice Latex-powered faille with nylon lace, paradise blue $22.50 . . . “bewitching stitching” has new miracle Pellon bra interlining $15.95.”

Most women wore bathing caps ; a popular model was Kleiner’ts water-tight swim caps with a “Magic Inner Rim” for keeping hair dry; Bloomingdale’s advertised these for $1.25 in a June issue of the New York Times.  Beach bags, sunglasses, and beach towels completed the ensemble.  Assorted brightly striped “bath sheets” as they were then called were advertised by Dundee in the June 1957 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal.

It’s not surprising that today women buy 1950’s suits not only for their value as collectibles but also as additions to their wardrobes.  With all that structure and the attractive retro designs, swimsuits from the fifties are popular today.  A couple of these recently available on two different internet sites included a light blue Jantzen (remember “blue is for boys” ) advertised with the tag-line :Feel like a 1950’s pin-up girl” ($22.00) and a knit “snug white suit with pink coral roses” which the seller says has curved bust stays and “a round back and fitted derriere” ($22.50).

Peggy Epstein is a retired English teacher and a free-lance writer. Her book "Great Ideas for Grandkids" was published last year by McGraw-Hill. Her articles have appeared in the Kansas City Star, College Bound, Footsteps, Grit, Teaching Tolerance, and others.


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Teenager in skirted swimsuit 1957.  

Full color Advertisement featuring Bloomer-style suits (and popular vocalist Frankie Laine) from June 1954 Good Housekeeping.

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  Swimsuit Ad from Wanamaker’s Department Store from June 1954 New York Times.

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