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Articles on Vintage Swimwear > Swim Wear Designers and the Hollywood Connection

3 Nov 2008



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Throughout the historical time line of the swim wear industry there are some famous designers who played a part it the evolution of it's growth. Hollywood also had a starring role by greatly influencing people's awareness of style and ideas of glamour in swim wear.

Swim Wear Designers

Designers of swim wear fashions are an infamous set of icons. Some came to the industry from a personal interest in form and function while others came from the Hollywood studios. Family connections also played a role.

In 1937 Rose Marie Reid began to design and sew her own swimsuits. Reid was a passionate swimmer and was dissatisfied with the prevailing styles of the time.
In her first year of business she grossed $10,000. Her line of one piece suits featured shirring and draping typically associated with evening gowns. Emilio Pucci designed for Rose Marie Reid in the 1950's with color block Poncho's, sandals and beach caps.

In the 1940s Catalina hired several of Hollywood’s most famous designers to work on designs for them headed up by none other than Mary Ann DeWeese. These designers included Milo Anderson and Orry Kelly from Warner Brothers, Edith Head from Paramount and Howard Schoup from MGM. DeWeese is credited with innovations in the use of texture, including jacquard knits and appliquéd stretch cottons. She also introduced "sweetheart' swimsuits and matching sportswear for men and women. DeWeese left Catalina during the 1950's to form her own company, DeWeese Designs. In 1960 she designed diving suits for the US Olympic team. After DeWeese left Catalina, Catalina hired a number of designers, most notably Bettina Jaynes.


Tina Lesser for GABARElizabeth Stewart was the daughter of Catalina's founder. In 1955 she launched Elizabeth Stewart Swim wear in Los Angeles with her husband and two brothers. Hollywood costumer and couturier Howard Greer designed for Caltex featuring his 'molded torso' line. Tina Lesser had her own clothing business in the early 50's, Tina Leser Originals,but also entered into a swim wear design contract with GABAR which lasted for many years.

Cole was working with designer Margit Felligi who joined Cole in 1936 and maintained her design leadership for the company for the next thirty-six years. Fred Cole was a product of Hollywood having been a silent movie star in the 20’s before entering the swim wear industry, via West Coast Knitting Mills which was owned by his parents. Cole used his Hollywood contacts and

had contracted with Esther Williams to promote his bathing suits in advertisements. Cole had hoped to get screen credits for other suits worn by Williams in a variety of movies including Neptunes Daughter (1949), Skirts Ahoy (1952, and Dangerous when Wet (1953), but MGM was not in agreement. Cole also contracted with Christian Dior to design his one and only swim wear line which debuted in 1955.

In the early 1960's Rudi Gernreich designed swim wear that was produced by Westwood Knitting Mills and later by Harmon Knits. Anne Cole has stated that she had discouraged Gernreich from working as a free lance designer for her father in the early 60's. "It was in early 1960 that my father made his first trip to Tahiti, and he arranged to put Rudi in charge of the collection for the coming season. I knew Rudi was brilliant, but I also knew it was because he was defying conventional fashion. His swim wear was clean and simple. I was afraid we'd ruin him! I mean, he'd loose his design eye if we had him turn out the type of structured suits we were selling." In 1982 Ann Cole began designing swim wear that was launched as the Cole Collection.

Textile Designers

Textile designers also played a role in working with the swim wear designers to create the latest fashions for the swim wear industry. In the mid 1940's, Louella Ballerino designed beach clothes for Jantzen. Many of these were created from Bates fabrics which took it's inspiration from Hawaii, Polynesia and Africa. Elza Sunderland was a pioneer of fine fabrics in the 1940's & 1950's. She saw potential for producing printed rayon, acetate and Lastex, and was the first to design printed terrycloth. Her fabrics were a perfect match for designers in the sportswear industry. As one of the first textile designers to understand the potential of the elasticized miracle fabrics that were so vital to swim wear, she worked with Margit Felligi for Cole, Mary Ann DeWeese for Catalina and Rose Marie Reid. She retired in 1955. Margit Felligi patented the Maletex process for Cole, which was Cole's version of Lastex. She also was the first to use Helanca Nylon for swim wear in 1954. Margit also worked closely with Christian Dior when he designed for Cole.


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