The arrival of Spring means that summer is right around the corner and it’s time again to shed our winter wear and start thinking about dressing for fun in the sun. With a little inspiration from a recent talk on “Mid-Century Modern Fashion: The California Look” given at LACMA, vintage specialist Doris Raymond sheds light on California’s other lesser-known claim to fame – the origination of lifestyle. In celebration of the season ahead and a return of swimwear, playsuits and resort wear to the front racks, The Way We Wore® presents the first in a series of posts on the history of California fashion and its ongoing impact over global style.
Hollywood has always been a driving force in fashion but its influence over the swimwear industry has a very interesting tale rich with celebrity, scandal and some very clever acts of showmanship.
As the film industry began to boom in the early part of the 20th century, so too did censorship. Hollywood producers were constantly looking for ways to popularize their movies by exposing the female form as much as possible without running into trouble from the government. Relentless, determined and ingenious, they found a solution by creating a new genre in creative expression altogether – the swim films.
The films gave Hollywood the freedom to expose more skin on a women than ever before imagined, all in the name of personal expression. Costume designers began to dip necklines lower and cut the legs higher for these new swimming goddesses. A few of the movies even featured athletes Annette Kellerman and Gertrude Ederle who found their own infamy when each was arrested during the early part of the 20th century for wearing what was considered scantily clad bathing suits as they attempted to perform athletic feats.
Women across the country began to take note. They were fed up with the full body suits they were required to wear which were made out of either wool, silk or cotton. These ensembles were not only uncomfortable and restrictive, they could also become quite odiferous in the hot sun. As demand for modern swimwear began to grow one man was quick to capitalize on it. According to the book California Fashion Fred Cole, scion to a manufacturing company and founder of Cole of California, traipsed to New York one cold and dreary day in December, 1925. Here he presented the first-ever collection of Hollywood inspired swimwear to a buyer at Macy’s. Once she overcame her initial shock she took swift action to place an order for a January delivery and the resort selling season was born. This out of then box thinking would forever bring an end to cumbersome beachwear.
Realizing the long-term potential for his company, Cole set about creating brilliant promotions that had fashion’s jaded east coast elite eating out of the palm of his hand. For the first time in the history of American fashion, buyers and critics would travel seasonally by train and airplane to be wined, dined and shop the California market. Their visits to Los Angeles would give rise to competitors such as Catalina, Mabs of Hollywood and other designers and labels that would benefit from the development of fashion’s new category. It was then that California’s fashion industry was truly born.
Fred Cole would go on to push the envelope on fashion forward resort wear by working with designer Margit Fellegi, known as the “first lady of swimwear”, who brought not only shape and structure to the suits but also created new techniques. By incorporating elastic into her cotton fabrications, Fellegi afforded women freedom of movement and flexibility in their play garments. She would go on to design for Cole for 40 years. Her contemporaries Jo Lathwood, Mary Ann DeWeese, Rose Marie Reid and Christian Dior himself, who at one point designed suits for the Cole label, would continue to take California casual to glamorous heights. Reid in particular created stunning looks in suits that were boned, shirred and beaded to provide the ultimate in femininity – the hourglass shape.
Things began to change in the 1960′s when Rudi Gernreich created the topless bathing suit and the thong. The bikini, originally invented in France, would begin to take hold thanks to a push from Jo Lathwood who designed for Catalina. In the 1980′s, California’s lifestyle began to moved towards active sports and it was during this time that Robin Piccone would create the first neoprene suits for Body Glove. Form, function and sex appeal began to take on a whole new direction.
Today, anything goes in fashion and that includes swimwear. Whether it’s the barely there bikini as featured on Sports Illustrated’s special edition covers, or a return to designer maillots and high-waisted two-pieces, one thing’s for sure – the inspiration has always come from the beaches of California.