1940s Graff Bathing Suit

I bought this bathing suit some years ago.  According to the seller it was once the property of actress June Allyson, but she had no concrete proof of that provenance, and despite looking at hundreds of photos of Allyson, I’ve never spotted it on her.  But no matter.  I’d have bought the suit regardless.

In the late 1930s swimsuit makers were finally addressing the problems associated with using wool as the fiber of swimsuits.  Men’s swimwear had long been made of wool knit, and in the late 1910s women began wearing knit suits as well.  There were lots of problems with these wool knit suits.  They fit when dry, but sagged and stretched when wet.  They were scratchy.  And they were prone to embarrassing holes.

In the mid 1930s the fit issues were addressed when Lastex was added to the wool.  Lastex is a specially produced yarn that has an elastic core.  It held the shape of the wool, even when wet.  Lastex was soon used with other fibers, and a rayon blend that looked like satin became popular for swimwear.

At the same time, manufacturers began to turn to woven cotton as a swimsuit material.  It was not as flexible as knit fabrics, but not everyone who puts on a bathing suit is wanting to swim.  Sometimes a wearer just wanted to look attractive at the beach or around the pool.

Yes, I’d say this suit was more for sunning than for swimming.  It is lined in a white cotton knit which would hug the body when in the water, and provide the necessary coverage under the pleated shorts.   It buttons up the back, and the straps can be tied, as I’ve shown, or they can be crossed and snapped at the waist.

Graff was one of the lesser known Hollywood sportswear brands.  They continued in business through the 1970s .  How about that cacti motif?

As pretty and colorful as this bathing suit is, it also holds interest as a record of the easy acceptance of racial and cultural stereotypes.  Spend any time looking at magazines, movies, or even textiles from the 1940s and you will see how prevalent all types of stereotyping were.

I think sometimes we look at the past with rose-colored glasses, that we romanticize the past, thinking it was really a simpler time.  And perhaps in some ways it was, but perhaps not so much so if you were of a racial minority or were a woman.

While it is still easy today to find examples of ads and media that perpetuate all kinds of stereotypes ( former VP Dick Cheney cracking hillbilly jokes, the objectification of women in music videos, the Chief Wahoo mascot) at least there are conversations that are addressing these issues.   In the 1940s, a famous actress could have worn this and not an eye would have been batted.  Today, I post photos of it, and know I can’t just ignore the images without talking about them.  I hope this shows some progress in human understanding.


Filed under Collecting, Novelty Prints, Sportswear, Summer Sports, Viewpoint, Vintage Clothing

10 responses to “1940s Graff Bathing Suit

  1. Lizzie…you are exactly right about those wool bathing suits getting holes in them. Your blog brought to mind the wool bathing suits my younger sister and I had to wear in about 1938…..we were just 7 and 6 years old and we had both worn holes in our ugly light green one piece bathing suits. However, because we could not afford new ones and my mother said the holes were so small, no one could see them “down there”….we had to wear them regardless. They may have been small to my mother, but big as a quarter to me. Once we would get in the pool…in we would stay, just to be safe.
    Funny how things are so funny 74 years later. Thanks for the memory. smile
    My dad wore a black wool looking suit with big hole openings on the sides under the arms at his ribs and very short legs. My mom wore a solid red wool, I guess, tank top looking suit.


  2. Andi from Raleigh Vintage

    Subject matter of the images aside…the suit is fabulous!! 🙂


  3. Oh my goodness! that is just too good for words!



  4. Teresa

    It’s a gorgeous suit and you’re so right about the stereotypes and rose coloured glasses.


  5. Your posts are always such a delight to read – thought-provoking and fact filled.– and this one is no exception.


  6. Yes…that’s what I love about this post. You look at first and see a beautiful swimsuit, and look closer and see the details that, though artfully rendered, are perhaps not so lovely. (It’s still a gorgeous suit, though.) I love what you say about us now being able to talk about things like racism and stereotypes, and I also hope that means we are making progress (though some days I do wonder).


  7. That is a pretty swim suit. It looks like it has “gores” on the front and is basically shorts on the bottom with some kind of lining. Am I right? I would agree that polyester wins out in the area of swim suits. Save the wool for fine skirts and trousers and such. 🙂


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