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.