Tag Archives: bathing suit

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 that the heavy wool knits of the past.

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Filed under Collecting, Sportswear, Summer Sports

Late 1950s Catalina Play-Alongs Plus Swimsuit

I found and bought the shirt above so many years ago that I have no recollection or record of its purchase. I know it has to be at least twenty years or so because for a long time it was actually in my closet. But I stopped wearing vintage on a regular basis long ago, mainly because I am so sloppy, and I was afraid of ruining things.

About the same time I began collecting sportswear more seriously, and so the blouse was added to my growing pile of old clothes. I especially loved the label, Catalina Play-Abouts, but since it went into the collection I really haven’t thought much about it.

But, as it so happens, I ran across a set of blouse and bathing suit of this print on etsy. I really wanted the swimsuit, but because I already had the blouse, I decided to think about it before buying. As luck would have it, someone posted just the swimsuit on Instagram, but before I could buy it, the posting disappeared.

By this time I was fairly discouraged, but not so much that I didn’t check the usual vintage venues. And there it was, on etsy, and a bit cheaper than the last one. My luck was improving.

A few days later, another set surfaced on Instagram – this time a bathing suit and matching skirt. But the print was in orange and yellow. But that started me on a further search.

I went back to etsy, and that time a skirt, in blue, surfaced. That brought my set to three matching pieces.

After posting the blouse and the bathing suit on Instagram, Liza of Better Dresses Vintage emailed some newspaper ads she found. The first one for Catalina Play-Abouts was dated 1953, and the last one was from 1960. Best of all, one from 1958 looked a lot like my bathing suit. And even more important was the information that there were also shorts and pedal pushers in the Play-Alongs lines.

After looking all over the internet, I finally found (on Pinterest) this image from a 1959 ad.  I can’t tell what the model is holding, but it might be a shawl or coverup. And I now know the print was made in a matching cabana set for guys.

The addition of this tag is also interesting. The fabric was apparently designed for Catalina, and there is also a copyright statement on the selvage of the fabric that I located in the skirt. And after looking at all the different photos of this fabric in extant garments, I noted that the bathing suits were not all the same design. There were three different suits that I have found.

The buttons on the skirt and blouse are plastic, shaped and painted to resemble bamboo. It’s a nice touch.

So the hunt for more of this line is on. I’m positive they are out there.

 

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Elisabeth Stewart Swim Set

One of the great things about collecting more recent eras of fashion is that there is so much choice. On the other hand, the existence of so much stuff from the past sixty years or so means that a collector has to really be careful in buying so as not to be distracted by all the choices. I’ve written before about how I really try to limit my acquisitions to the very best examples possible. When it comes to sportswear from the mid 1950s and younger, it pays to be patient and to wait until something really special hits the market.

Spend some time looking at old ads from the past and you’ll quickly see that bathing suit companies didn’t just make bathing suits. All sorts of accessories and matching garments were available to the swimsuit shopper. One such garment was the matching cover-up.

I spotted this set some time ago, and I really fell for it. Not only was the set never worn, but there were three matching pieces. The label was one that was not represented in my collection, and the price was fair.

Elisabeth Stewart was the daughter of Catalina swimsuits owner, Ed Stewart. When Ed sold Catalina in 1956, Elisabeth and her brothers, David and Bill Stewart, opened their own bathing suit business in Los Angeles. At that time swimsuit styles (along with fashion in general) were beginning to change. The hourglass New Look was fading, and straighter lines were showing up. Elisabeth Stewart’s swimsuits reflected this change.

This style bathing suit, with the straight across bodice attached to shorts was made popular by designer Tina Leser who was making swimsuits for Gabar.  Leser was adept at making bathing suits that gave women a bit more coverage. The style must have struck a chord with women because it remains available today, sixty years later.

But the real icing on this bathing suit cake is this matching hat. It looks rather silly on, but it brings out a facet of the set that didn’t really occur to me until I saw the hat on the mannequin. It appears to me that this suit was inspired by the old-fashioned men’s Edwardian striped knit bathing suits, along with the caps worn by Edwardian women bathers.

The label I’m showing is in the hat. Tapoo Hawes was Bill Hawes, a maker of sports hats. The first reference I’ve found to Tapoo was in 1952, in Jet. By looking at some of the hats by Hawes I found for sale, I’d say he continued in business into the 1970s.

Finally, go back to my first photo to make sure you noticed how the design of the fabric was actually achieved through seams. Just beautiful!

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1940s Made in Hawaii Bathing Suit from Kahala

This recently acquired halter and shorts set sent me down a rabbit hole of Hawaiian textiles.  The beginnings of the Hawaiian shirt are a bit obscure, but the first ones were probably made from silk fabrics from Japan in the 1920s.  Most of them were made by small shops in small batches. The large scale manufacture of shirts from Hawaiian fabrics started in the mid 1930s.

My set was made by Kahala, one of the first companies to manufacture “Hawaiian” garments.  It was started in 1936 by Nat Norfleet and George Brangier, neither of whom was a native Hawaiian. Their company, Branfleet, was using the Kahala name and label by 1937.  From what I’ve been able to find out, women’s garments were not made until after World War II, but then clothing for women became a major part of their business.

It is possible that my set is actually a bathing suit. It is completely lined in cotton jersey.

What Norfleet and Brangier discovered was that men would buy a shirt made from their Hawaiian fabrics to wear while in Hawaii, but women would continue to wear their Kahala garments after returning home.  I’d say this was much better than today’s not so subtle brag of the souvenir tee shirt.  You could remind the neighbors of your Hawaiian trip while looking fabulous.

I don’t find a lot of older Hawaiian garments here in the Southeast. People here were much more likely to vacation in Florida, or if a little more affluent, Cuba. But from the few older Hawaiian shirts I have been able to closely examine, I can tell you that the fabric is very different from the newer rayons made in the 1980s up through the present time.  My set is rayon, but it is lightly textured, though smooth at the same time.

The button is made from coconut shell, and adds another layer of Hawaiian authenticity.

But the star of this set is the print.  The richness is achieved with the use of at least fourteen colors.  I especially love the light blue used with so much red.

According to my one and only book on Hawaiian shirts, the very earliest prints were tropical flowers and tapa cloth prints. Scenics like mine soon became popular as well.

The Hawaiian Shirt, by H. Thomas Steele, was one of the very first fashion books I bought.  I can remember looking through it in the local B. Dalton book store and trying to justify the purchase. It was published in 1984, so I’m sure it was shortly after than that I added this to my very small, but growing, fashion history library.

 

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Late Victorian Bathing Costume

The great bulk of my collection dates after 1915, but I’m slowly educating myself about earlier sportswear, and I’ve begun to acquire a few pieces.  This late nineteenth century bathing suit is my latest.  I bought this one mainly because most of the ones I’ve looked at over the past year are black, so a different color was a plus.  I’ll probably eventually buy a black one, if I find one with great design that is in good condition.

Condition is a major problem with antique bathing suits, as they were for the most part, made from wool.  Besides the fact that moths love them, they were exposed to salt water and who knows what else.  So while this suit photographs and displays well, it has the sort of issues one might expect from a well-used garment that is around 120 years old. In this case, I decided I could live with more damage than I would on a more common garment.

The bathing suit is made up of two pieces, the blouse and bloomers combination, and a matching skirt. This was pretty much the makeup of women’s bathing suits until the second decade of the twentieth century, when the shrunken bloomers were covered by a skirt that was attached to the top.  From there the bathing suit kept getting smaller, and smaller and…

The lighter color tie is attached at the shoulders.  It covers a placket, under which is a row of buttons.

The modesty panel attaches to the collar with buttons on one side, and is permanently attached on the other.

The braid, which is green, was sewn on by machine, and looks to be professionally done.

The braid also decorated the sleeves, the waistband, and the hem of the skirt.  The weight of it helped to keep the skirt from riding or blowing up, thus saving the wearer from extreme embarrassment.

The damage is much more apparent on the back.  There are a number of moth holes, and the waist band is torn.  I’m guessing that the owner had gained a bit of weight, and the band simply ripped from the stress.  The buttons are for attaching the skirt.

Note the fullness below the waistband, which is the top of the bloomers.  I’ll get back to that in a minute.

This bathing suit came with a bit of a mystery attached – an extra piece that was originally part of the garment. It is a slice cut from the skirt. At some point the suit was altered to make the back of the skirt less full.  And while there is only one piece, there is evidence that two pieces were cut out.

This is the inside of the skirt, showing where I think the piece was removed. The most obvious sign is that a different color of thread was used.  On the left you can see that the thread matches the fabric, but the newer seam is stitched in white.  On the front, the original seams are so perfectly matched that it is hard to see them.  On the two new seams, the braid is off somewhat.

There is also white stitching where the skirt is gathered into the waistband.  So the back of the skirt had quite a bit of fullness removed.  But why? It probably has to do with changing fashion.

The image above is from 1898, from The Glass of Fashion. Even though a garment like a bathing suit might not be considered “fashion”, you can see the trends of an era in the shape and the details. Even though this is a dress, it has a lot in common with my bathing costume, with the gored skirt having a flat front and a full back.  The bodice is also similar with the pleats and gathers attached to a yoke. And don’t forget the puffed sleeves.

The bathing suit above is from an 1899 Delineator magazine. You can see how similar this one is to mine, with the tie, sailor collar, puffed sleeves and band at the hem.  This basic style remained popular over the next fifteen or so years, with gradual changes being made to reflect changing fashion.  The bodice became droopy in front, the gathers disappeared and smooth, full gores replaced them.

In period illustrations, bathing costumes are frequently pictured in beautiful colors, but photographs from the same time tell a different story.  The overwhelming majority of bathing suits for women were dark, either black or navy.

There are a few other problems with my suit.  Someone shortened the waist by about three quarters of an inch by making a tuck right above the waist.  I haven’t decided if I’ll remove it, but I probably will just leave it.  Most of the original buttons have been replaced, but buttons of this era are easy to find so I’ll probably replace the newer ones. The elastic in the legs of the bloomers has completely lost its stretch.  I’ll probably just leave it.

It was fun analyzing this piece.  Unfortunately, I know nothing at all about who the original owner was, but I do know she had a very appealing bathing costume.

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Bad History, and a Bit about Lastex

Beauty Mask using Lastex, filed in 1933 by Ronald Giuliano

When I posted about how “the internet” is changing clothing terminology, I felt like I was a bit of a grump, and thus vowed to not to write about things that irritate me.  But an article on the fashion site, Fashionista sent me over the edge. When I saw a link to “How Today’s Biggest Swimsuit Companies Got their Start Knitting Wool” come up on Twitter , I knew better than to click to it.  I did it anyway.

I appreciate that sites like Fashionista are willing to devote space to fashion history articles.  What I don’t appreciate is the lack of fact checking and the use of freelance fashion writers instead of fashion historians.

The big issue I have with this article is this sentence:

 Starting in the mid ’20s, swimwear companies began to weave elastic, known as Lastex, into the suits, offering a far more flattering fit…

Being a collector of swimsuits, I knew I’d never seen one from the 1920s that contained Lastex, and the earliest ones I remembered being advertised were from around 1935.  Susan at Witness2Fashion wrote about Lastex last year.  The earliest use of Lastex she found was in 1932, in a Sears catalog, on a page of girdles.

So I went in search of the facts, hopefully in a well-researched article that told the history of Lastex.  I didn’t find it, but a series of rabbit holes led to the names of Percy and James Adamson.  After finding the names connected with the development of an elastic thread, the main source of information turned out to be old court documents.  It appears that the Adamsons were in court a lot.

In 1926 the brothers Adamson formed a little company hoping that Percy’s experiments with new yarns would lead to a money-maker.  In 1930 Percy was successful in making a rubber thread, wrapped with cotton or another fiber.  He filed for a patent and then in 1931, refiled as he had made improvements.  He also filed for a trademark for “Lastex”.  He then contacted the United States Rubber Company, who entered into an agreement with Percy.  US Rubber would get the trademark for Lastex, manufacture the yarn and pay the Adamson Company royalties.

There’s a lot more to the story (lawsuits…), but it really does not add to the basic story that Lastex was invented in 1930, and patented and trademarked in 1931. In looking through dozens of patents, mainly for stockings, underwear, and swimsuits, it becomes obvious that Lastex really caught on around 1934 or 35.

All this leads us back to the Fashionsta article with its problematic line.  The mid 1920s date has now been assigned  by a large fashion website to the usage of Lastex in swimsuits.  As of today the article has been shared on social media 514 times, and that does not include all the retweets, and Facebook sharing.  Yes, my blog post sets the record straight, but only a thousand or so people will read this, and I’ll be lucky if it is shared ten times on social media.

I realize the purpose of Fashionsta is to turn out fluff pieces that no one really takes seriously, but there are people who have read the article and will remember that mid 1920s date.  In one article, history is changed.  How long will it be before swimsuits containing Lastex are advertised for sale as being from the 1920s?

The article also relates the story of Annette Kellerman’s arrest on a Boston beach in 1907.  As I posted last week, there is very little documentation to support the story, although years after the fact Kellerman was fond of relating the tale.  The earliest reference that I can find to the incident is a syndicated newspaper article from November, 1932.  The information for that article came from an interview with Kellerman.  I’m not saying the arrest did not happen, but I do believe this would be a great topic for further study.

One last thing and then I’ll shut up.

…women wore swimsuits of fine ribbed wool to the beach. Typically shaped like a knee-length romper, or featuring a vest or short-sleeve top with shorts… They were only available in dark colors, with a minimum of decoration: perhaps some stripes around the knees, buttons on the shoulders or a tie at the waist.

No. Even though the most common suits were black and dark navy, other colors were definitely available.

An early 1920s bathing suit in my collection

 

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Terminology

Our words are important.  This is true in politics and in fashion history.  I love people who have the strength to sell old clothes online because I know how much work it can be, but what I don’t like is how a garment can morph from its original purpose to something entirely different in the interest of selling that garment.

The garment shown above is a gymsuit.  Period.  It is not a playsuit.  It is not a romper. It is, despite what etsy listings would lead one to believe, a gymsuit.

This is a bathing suit by Tina Leser.  Period.  It is not a playsuit.  It is not a romper. It is, despite what etsy listings would lead one to believe, a bathing suit.

 

This is a 1911 bathing suit.  A similar suit is currently listed on etsy as a “1920’s Cotton Playsuit, Beach Romper, Athletic Wear,  Bloomers” but it too, is a bathing suit.  Nowhere in the description, nor in the tags, was the term bathing suit even used.  That would completely  eliminate that suit from the search I regularly do for older bathing suits.

But more importantly, things like this change the terminology of fashion and of clothing.  It’s like calling a short 1920s dress a “mini”, or a long 1930s dress a “maxi”.  These terms did not come into use until decades later, and so using them in an older context is incorrect.  I will agree that it is possible that some people might have referred to the Tina Leser type suit as a playsuit, but rompers were for toddlers, not for grown women.

As of this writing, there are 3125 listings for “playsuit” in the women’s vintage category on etsy.  Most of these are for 1950s and 1960s bathing suits.  Some are for 1980s jumpsuits.  And all are titled and tagged in a manner that a serious collector is never going to find them.

UPDATE: I know better than to make a statement so definite as ” rompers were for toddlers, not for grown women.”  A friend has emailed a photo of a 1920s sewing pattern of a one piece garment with legs for ladies, misses and girls, and the pattern refers to it as a romper.  Let me rephrase that to say that in my experience, rompers were worn by my little sister and cousins in the 1960s, and I wore culotte dresses in the 60s and jumpsuits in the 70s.

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