California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way

Mod Betty of Retro Roadmap recently was in Massachusetts where she not only got to see this exhibition, but also agreed to share it with us.  Located at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, it was originally organized by the Los Angeles Museum of Art.  Mod Betty also saw that one, and reported back that while there was some overlap, there was enough new material to make a second visit worthwhile.

The photo above is a spectacular early 1950s bathing suit from Cole of California.  Designed by Margit Fellegi, it was probably a tie-in with an Esther Williams film, Million Dollar Mermaid.

This suit is one of Cole of California’s best known bathing suits.  Designed by Margit Fellegi in 1942, it was designed to conserve fabric and rubber elastic for the war effort.  They called it the “Swoon Suit” and it guess it did make a few fellows feel weak in the knees.

These pieces were designed by Irene Saltern who is best known for her work at Tabak of California.   These coordinates date from 1960 and are so typical of what she did best – making cheerful, wearable clothes for a casual lifestyle.

Here is another set from Margit Fellegi for Cole of California.  These separates were from her Female Animal collection of 1954.

This Pucci-inspired print is on a Rose Marie Reid swimsuit from 1963.

This American flag themed suit dates from 1961 and is from Mary Ann DeWeese.  I thought this one was pretty interesting, as clothing that mimicked the flag was not always considered patriotic as it is today.  According to the Flag Code, it is not legal to use the flag as “wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery”, and I can remember how rock stars were criticized in the 60s for wearing flag-like clothing.

This is actually a bathing suit with a matching skirt.  It is from 1952 and was designed by Mary Ann DeWeese.  Aren’t those cutout flowers special?

Here’s one for the guys, though I can’t see many men today who would wear this.  These matching swim trunks and shirt or jacket were called cabana sets.

In the foreground is a mid 1940s play set from designer Pat Premo.  The fabric is of note, as it was from renowned textile designer Wesley Simpson.

In the background are the pants of the 20th century – Levi’s jeans.

Levi Strauss also made clothing with a Western twist for women.  This set dates from the mid 1950s.

No exhibition of California clothing would be complete without a bit of Gilbert Adrian.  This is a typical Adrian suit, with the precise piecing and use of stripes to produce a pattern.

This Adrian dress is a bit later, and is from his Atomic 50s collection of 1950.

Rudi Gernreich took wool knit and made surprisingly modern-looking bathing suits.  This one is from 1958.

The exhibition is not just clothing.  Furniture, decorative objects and other items featuring 20th century design are highlighted.

I want to thank Mod Betty (that’s her with her mom who accompanied her to the museum) for the great photos and for the item notes.

All photos copyright Beth Lennon.



Filed under Museums

26 responses to “California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way

  1. Ha! I’ll have to show this to my “Retro Roadmum” – we’re famous! Glad I could share the photos – and interesting to see the difference between what was in the traveling exhibit and what was in Los Angeles. I’m a lucky gal to have been able to attend both 🙂


  2. Thanks for sharing that, Lizzie! That’s right outside of town so I’ll have to go check it out.


  3. Thank you Mod Betty and you too, Lizzie for sharing. I would never have remembered the maker of my very favorite cool swim suit from 1952 or so….that is until I saw the suit by Rose Marie Reid…and she was the designer of my favorite suit.. I just wish I would have saved some of those old things I had. I enjoyed seeing ALL the pictures. Thanks again.



    Spectacular post, one of your best ! I love this dress; “This Adrian dress is a bit later, and is from his Atomic 50s collection of 1950” I was 6 years shy a human.


    • seweverythingblog

      Along the same lines, Adrian’s Atomic dress of 1950 would be my favorite item in this post (assuming I was forced to choose) because 1950 was the year I became a human 🙂
      Lovely post! Many thanks to Mod Betty & Lizzie for sharing.


  5. Wonderful exhibition! Love the Female Animal collection of 1954. 🙂


  6. Well, I want the Adrian suit. One of my personal sewing goals is to be able to use stripes so well.


    • I read once that when the Adrian workrooms were considering a sewing applicant, they put the person in a sewing room with the cut-out pieces of a jacket ready to be assembled but with no instructions. How well they figured out the “puzzled” determined their employment! I’m not sure if having the fabric striped would help or hinder that process!


  7. Wow–what a cool exhibit! That DeWeese floral swimsuit-with-skirt is gorgeous. (I also love ModBetty’s striped top and yellow coat–nice!)


    • It’s great that they had the set to show, not just the swimsuit. A lot of companies offered a matching skirt, but either they’ve all gotten separated in the past 60 years, or women didn’t buy them as a set. Or maybe the skirt just got more wear that the swimsuit.


  8. Thanks for sharing, both of you vintage travelers. Wonderful photos and a reminder that I should look up some more Adrian exhibits. I remember my mother taking me to Esther Williams movies. She was quite influential: my high school used to do an aquacade every year (for me, 1958 – 62) — for years afterwards I smelled chlorine whenever I heard certain music, like the “Quiet Village” album. Nostalgic post!


  9. Christina

    Lovely Adrian suit. Nice to see a close-up of the Rudi Genreich swimsuit.


  10. Wow, this exhibition seems to display many different pieces that were not in the original California design show that I saw in LA. Thanks for sharing the photos of these wonderful garments.


  11. It was interesting hearing your comments on the US flag. I remember hearing a British radio documentary (annoyingly, I can’t remember what it was called) in which someone reminisced about how one firm here had made, as a thank-you to American servicemen during the war, US flag knickers (panties) to take home to their wives – which was a massive faux pas. I wish I could remember more about the story!


  12. Oh my, those clothes are spectacular! Love the blue floral sundress with the cutout flowers. So wish I could see the exhibit. Am heading up to NE for Brimfield Week so am just going to miss it by a couple of days because it ends July 6 😦


  13. Oh my goodness! I had that Pucci inspired Rose Marie Reid suit and sold it last summer! Such a fun print!


  14. Pingback: Updates – The Rest of the Story | The Vintage Traveler

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