1950s Swimsuits, a Feature of our Frantic Fashion From the 1950s Travelling Exhibit


Swimsuit styles of the 1950s are worth taking a second look. We’ve pulled them out of the archives in readyness for our travelling exhibit of iconic 1950s fashion. Here’s what makes them so interesting:

At a time when suburbia was in its infancy and backyard pools promised a luxury lifestyle, swimsuits were not only structured with hidden corsetry, but were fully accessorized with straw hats, beach bags, rubber bathing caps, bold sunglasses, cabana jackets, and sarong cover-ups.

During the 1950s, swimsuit designers ensured that fit was key, and flattering styles could be found to enhance every figure. How could they not? Bathing suits rivaled evening gowns and sundresses with their glamorous styling and meticulous dressmaking details. Designers like Tina Leser, Orry Kelly, Edith Head, Travis Banton, Mary Ann DeWeese, and Netty Rosentein achieved hourglass silhouettes through the use of boning, inner corsetry, padded bra cups, elasticzed tummy panels, and careful seaming.

In addition, dressmaking details were used to draw the eye away from figure flaws and toward figure features with techniques such as bustline embellishments and petal skirts.

Buttons and bows, rikrak and ruching, smocking and tucking added impact to all suit designs whether they be the one-piece maillot style, the two-piece bathing suit or the bikini. In 1952, for example, swimsuit bodices boasted pompon fringe and wing-dings — contrast fabric bustline flaps which would be tilted up to minimize a large bust or slanted down to enhance a small one. These flaps mimicked the tailfins which characterized the cars of that era.

While brightly-colored plaids, polka dots, and prints were popular for cotton bathing suits, glittery metallics like gold and silver lame also made the scene. Swimsuits of the 1950s are especially popular with vintage fashion collectors and are easily identified by their sturdy fabrication, inner corset-like construction, and modest bikini-line coverage. Most were cut in a straight line at the bikini line, shortening the leg but emphasizing an hour-glass silhouette. Removeable straps and/or halter necklines, which could be untied, aided sunbathing.

Swimsuit advertising posters of the 1950s — which are also highly collectible — embody the spirit of the times and exemplify both the male and female silhouette, iconic of that fashion period. Magazine ads and cardboard posters promoting high fashion swimsuits by Janzen, Gantner, Cole, and Hollywood present an idealized image of the 1950s lifestyle. Brylcreemed male models in boxer-style lycra swim trunks worn high to cover the navel, lounge poolside, while sleekly coiffed pin-up girls in red lipstick and dark eyebrow pencil strike alluring poses in their highly structured pool and beachwear.

The 1950s was an age of television beauty contests. Swimsuit competitions which highlighted these events, did much to further the popularity of the high fashion swimsuit and were the genesis for specialized swimsuit glamour photography.

One advertising newsreel ca. 1952 featured suits by Cole and Hollywood touted “ Heavenly bodies” bathing suits in the new gold lastex, 2 piece skirted petal suits and mother-and- daughter matched suits. A Janzen’s tagline boasted the “most beautiful, beautifying swim suits in the world.

Collectors looking for authentic 1950s swimwear should look for petal suits, and skirted bikinis, with features like halter neckline, strapless or removeable strap maillots, elasticized fabric, ruched tummy panels, pointy bra cups, metal zippers, elastic gussets and belts.

There is still time to book our Frantic Fashion from the 1950s vintage costume exhibit for your location.

Published by Norma Shephard

I'm the founder and director of the Mobile Millinery Museum & author of five books on vintage fashion.

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