California Swim Suits and Wet Suits History 

 

To offset the decline of movie ticket sales with the advent of television, MGM chose United States swimming champion Esther Williams to perform in a  musical  Million Dollar Mermaid directed by Mervyn LeRoy with choreography by the famed Busby Berkeley. In this movie,  Williams wore a bathing suit of chain mail composed of 50,000 gold flakes, from a height of fifty feet into a mass of swimmers. Helen Rose, the picture's costume designer was challenged in rendering the costume until she discovered a latex net which was attractive, swimable and would not drag the picture's star to the bottom of the pool.

 

Esther Williams became a precursor of swimsuit fashion change as female consumers clamored for copies of the sparkling, skin-tight, beaded suits. Sensing a commercial opportunity, in 1947 Williams signed a modeling contract with Cole of California which also included an annual swimsuit design named for Esther Williams.

 

While Hollywood struggled, the apparel industry was expanding to California, especially Los Angeles, which became known for sports and beach wear. The growth of this industry drew from historic precedents, as early as 1912 local manufacturer Catalina Swimwear pioneered women's knitted swimsuits. By the 1930s the company had introduced the printed Lastex suit.

After World War II, Southern California fashion wholesalers gained better manufacturing techniques through new technology to produce swimsuit designs with supple, elasticized contouring and engineered boning. The snug fitting suits, however, required the use of fabrics which were lightweight, had recoverable elasticity and possessed dye retention and tensile qualities in the most adverse environments. Initially, rayon fiber was used. First manufactured in 1889 from the extract of the mulberry leaf; it was introduced into the United States in 1910 as artificial silk. Subsequently, American Rubber's Lastex, an extruded rubber surrounded by fiber, became a popular staple, despite its failure to retain color and design when stretched, or to retain its flex life when exposed to body oils. Although nylon hosiery was introduced as early as 1940, it was not until after World War II that nylon, one of the most elastic fibers available, was utilized in the swim suit industry.

In the following decades research scientists produced a variety of man-made textile filaments, including Dacron, Orlon, Lycra and Spandex, which alone or blended would revolutionize swim suit manufacture.  The favorable convergence of many factors resulted in a year-round, four season cycle of bathing suit production in Southern California. The booming bathing suit business was enhanced by such Hollywood inspired promotions as lavish style shows and celebrity appearance. Swim suit manufacturing ranks top in the United States and second in the world.