After seeing the Emilio Pucci in American exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, I was curious about the relationship between Pucci and swimwear maker Rose Marie Reid. To my surprise I found that a biography of Reid had been published, so I promptly ordered a copy.
Unless the designer is Coco Chanel or maybe Yves Saint Laurent, designer biographies are actually quite rare. Some are written as exhibition catalogs, such as the wonderful Claire McCardell: Redefining Modernism which was published in 1998 to go with an exhibition of McCardell’s work at the Museum at FIT. There are quite a few autobiographies from twentieth century designers, some good, some bad. But a biography of a ready-to-wear designer in a niche market is a rarity.
In reading about the life of a fashion designer – or any important person for that matter – the thing that interests me most is that person’s work and the influences on the work. There are a few designers, again, Coco Chanel, whose work was so important and so entwined with the time in which she lived that her private life and political and religious views are an important part of the narrative.
Rose Marie Reid, An Extraordinary Life is actually more about Reid the mother, the Mormon, and the woman with whom people had difficult relationships. Not that the details of her design career are not present, as they are, but the timeline is fuzzy and confusing. To a person like me who likes to examine the when of things, it was a bit frustrating. For instance, the book tells a great story about how Rose Marie first started making bathing suits. Her new husband, Jack Reid was a swimming instructor who hated his saggy wool trunks. Rose Marie took a piece of cotton duck to which she added lacing on the sides to make for a good fit.
The design was so successful that Jack took a copy to the local Hudson’s Bay Company store, where the buyer there asked for a women’s design. From that order the business was formed, and within a year Rose Marie was overseeing a factory with thirty-two sewing machines. But the book never says exactly when this all took place.
Of course I realize that history is not always measured in dates. However, when you are studying design it helps to know when such innovations actually took place. The best I can figure was sometime between November 1935, when Rose Marie and Jack were married, and 1937 when it is mentioned that Rose Marie’s suits were used in some 1937 games.
Interwoven into the story of the formation of the business are the details of the birth of their children, the disintegration of their marriage, and how Rose Marie prayed through it all. The theme and the timeline constantly changed and at times I was left shaking my head.
I guess it is important to let you know that one of Rose Marie’s daughters, Carole Reid Burr, was the co-author. There were endnotes that gave sources, and from that it is easy to see that this book is mainly a compilation of oral family stories. Numerous interviews were listed as references, and from that I could begin to see why the telling seemed so disjointed.
There were actually sixteen different people interviewed for the book, and along with old letters and newspaper clippings, they seem to be the source for most of the information. Company records did not seem to be used at all, but that is not surprising since Rose Marie sold the business and franchised her name starting in 1962. Subsequently there are more details about the many lawsuits in which Rose Marie was involved than there were of the actual business of making swimsuits.
Near the end of the book I finally spotted the name of Emilio Pucci, and began to take notice. Unfortunately the anecdote was about how he had bought some Rose Marie Reid swimsuits for his staff, and had given one to fashion journalist Ann Scott James. And that was the end of Emilio, with no mention of the collaboration between him and Reid.
A great deal is made of Reid’s Mormon faith, and I suppose that is understandable considering that the book was published by a Mormon company. In some ways her faith was important to her design story, as the dictates of modesty by the Mormon Church led her to strongly reject the bikini. And it was probably this rejection that led Rose Marie to sell the company in 1962.
Besides the fuzzy storytelling, there were quite a few factual mistakes. The book refers to, but does not explain a relationship with White Stag. Unfortunately, it is consistently spelled “White Stagg.” There was also a big discussion of the great success of rival swimsuit maker Cole of California. The authors refer to Cole’s Scandal Suit as a bikini, which it was not. (There was a version that resembled two pieces connected by mesh, but even it was not a true bikini.)
It’s such a shame that the story of a company that was the world’s largest producer of women’s swimwear in the late 1950s should be told in such an off-putting way. Between the preaching of Mormon principles and the accolades of Reid’s mothering ability, I’ve found it hard to go back through and try to establish just the story of the swimsuit company. Maybe someday I’ll be stranded on a desert island with just this book and a pencil and I can figure it all out.