Early 1930s Catalina Bathing Suit

When one thinks of pioneers in the American swimsuit industry, Jantzen immediately comes to mind. But lately I’ve been giving a longer look at another major swimwear maker, Catalina. And while it’s probably true that Jantzen was the industry leader in the years between 1920 and 1970, my fresh look at Catalina has revealed a company that is at the top in terms of design.

I recently acquired the suit above, and I wanted it because it shows a link between the traditional one-piece suit, and what was soon to come, the woman’s two-piece. A side view makes this more obvious.

The bodice of the suit is attached only in the front for about seven inches. This feature was also seen in men’s suits at the time, and soon there was a zipper in men’s suits that allowed them, for the first time, to go topless. Women weren’t given that option (not until Rudy Gernrich’s monokini in 1964, anyway), but there was no stopping the shrinking of the swimsuit and the advent of the two-piece.

The two-piece for women first appeared in Europe in the early 1930s, and by 1935 Catalina was making two-piece suits, but it was not until the 1940s that it really caught on in the USA.

I did a lot of searching for my suit, but the closest I found was the suit in this 1932 ad.  The ad does not tell us the fiber of the yarn, but I’d guess that it’s wool, as this is about the time Lastex entered the market and radically changed the way swimsuits were made. After 1933 or so, most swimsuit ads boasted of their use of snug-fitting Lastex.

My suit does not have Lastex, so even though this style of suit was made for most of the 1930s, the later ones (1934 and after) I found ads for all have lastex.

Be sure to read the endorsement of Hollywood designer Adrian. While he did not design this suit, Catalina was quick to draw a parallel between their made in California suits and the movie industry. And isn’t it interesting that “we ‘play to’ their skin tones rather than their hair,” when the movies were still all in black and white!

According to the label, Catalina suits were, “Worn by the Stars of Hollywood”. Later in the decade Hollywood designer Orry Kelly did actually design suits for Catalina, and the company changed the line to, “Styled for the Stars of Hollywood”.


In the early 1930s the back was often bared in evening dresses, and so the swimsuit had to also bare the back.

This logo is hard to beat!

Even though this is a swimsuit knit of wool, it is very different from the wool suits of the 1920s. The gauge of the knit is much finer than that used only a few years earlier, the bodice is lined, and there is a real attempt at shaping through darts and contours. This suit had to have been much more flattering than the heavy wool knits of the past.


Filed under Collecting, Sportswear, Summer Sports

14 responses to “Early 1930s Catalina Bathing Suit

  1. kerryemckenna

    That is something else! I’m glad you showed it!


  2. What a gorgeous bathing suit! And with an Adjusto-Back feature! .. If only they looked like that now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jacq staubs

    striking gold this week Ms. Lizzie!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Shirley

    How did the body enter the swimsuit? Was the knit distensible enough to stretch over the hips? I don’t see any obvious closure such as a zipper.


  5. That big buckle makes it look like this was more for sunbathing than swimming! But what an elegant design.


  6. Patricia

    And in the same vein: did you see this about the Speedos? https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/speedo-collection-at-powerhouse-museum


  7. What an awesome find! I would wear it just for the logo, but the design is awesome too. Makes me think of something a chorus girl would wear. Do you have any in your collection that were designed by Orry Kelly?


  8. Pingback: Catalina Culottes Plus Associated American Artist Print | The Vintage Traveler

  9. James Hanley

    I am serving as the guest curator for an exhibition, “Styling by the Sea” that will be on display during the summer of 2020. Every time I come across a post to the Vintage Traveler blog I find it to be a delightful, educational experience to read. Thank you for all your interesting research


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