Prior to world War l, “bathing costumes”, as they were known, were modest garments made of itchy woollen fabric. Women’s costumes usually consisted of a loose overblouse, a knee-length skirt, and stockings – an outfit barely less voluminous than street wear. Although women’s bathing costumes were certainly not conducive to actual swimming, this actually caused few problems, since recreational swimming was not a tremendously popular activity during the early years of the twentieth century. Still, trying to swim in these bathing costumes proved inordinately difficult. (1)

In 1908, Annette Kellerman, a champion swimmer and later vaudeville and movie star, wore a sleek one piece- piece body stocking into the surf at Revere Beach near Boston and was promptly arrested for indecent exposure. Nevertheless, this risqué one-piece bathing suit, which came to be known as the controversial “Kellerman Suit”, marked the beginning of a dramatic change in women’s swimwear from bulky, unathletic swimming dresses to form-fitting modern bathing suits. (1)

Anna Kellerman wearing what later became known as the
Anna Kellerman wearing what later became known as the “Kellerman Suit”, 1907.

The 1920’s marked the founding of three major bathing suit manufacturers, eventually known as Jantzen, Cole an Catalina, that succeeded in popularizing beach fashion and breaking down older prohibitions on suitable bathing garments. (1) 

Danish immigrant Carl Jantzen, along with his partners John and Roy Zehntbauer, invented a machine that could knit stretchy fabric that was ribbed on both sides. This fabric was much more elastic than ordinary jersey, the fabric most commonly used to make swimwear, and it clung on every curve of the body. In 1921, Jantzen began developing one-piece bathing suits that looked as if they were actually two pieces. (1) 

A beautifully illustrated Jantzen ad from 1921. #vintage #1920s #summer #beach #swimsuit #ad
A beautifully illustrated Jantzen ad from 1921.

These tubular maillot suits, sometimes called “California-style” suits, consisted of a scoop-necked, sleeveless top that was sewn at the waist to a pair of trunks. Often these unisex suits were embellished with bold, colourful stripes across the chest, hip and thigh. Jantzen marketed these suits with matching swimming sock and caps topped with a pompon. But because swimming was still not a particularly popular recreational activity, Jantzen realizes that the market for swimwear was relatively limited. To encourage Americans to swim and therefore, to buy more swimsuits, Jantzen founded the Jantzen Swimming Association in 1926 and immediately launched a national campaign called “Learn to Swim”, which offered free swimming lessons across the country, certificates of completion, local competitions, and endorsements from champion swimmers. By 1930, Jantzen was the world’s largest producer of bathing suits, selling more than 1.5 million suits a year. (1)

Loretta Young in a bathing suit ad for Jantzen swimwear 1920s.
Loretta Young in a bathing suit ad for Jantzen swimwear 1920s.

While Jantzen’s Oregon-based company specialized in athletic-looking suits that were actually suitable for swimming, Fred Cole’s rival company in Los Angeles focused on creating dramatic fashion suits that were designed primarily for glamorous sunbathing. In 1925, Cole began marketing the “Prohibition Suit”, which had a low-cut neckline and tiny skirt that was shockingly revealing for the time. (1)

Catalina swimwear, also based in California, offered America’s bathing beauties a range of swimsuits that were sexier than Jantzen’s but not nearly as daring as Cole’s. Catalina’s “Rib Stitch 5” suit, for example, introduced the nearly backless bathing suits that became immensely popular among women in the late 1920’s. Catalina also served as the official swimsuit provider for the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. (1)

Atlantic City's bathing beauties - 1922
Atlantic City’s bathing beauties – 1922


(1) The 1920’s (American Popular Culture Through History) by Kathleen Drowne and Patrick Huber, 2004