Catalina swimsuit, mid-1950s

With its beaches, pools, and nearly year-round sunshine, Southern
California was the birthplace of active sportswear. Hollywood's "Dream
Factories" showcased silver-screen stars with golden tans wearing
dazzling swimwear. This mid-1950s suit embellished with thousands of
prong-set rhinestones that rippled over its wearer like sun-dappled
waves evokes that glamorous lifestyle. But the threat of rusting in salt
or chlorinated water kept it landlocked. Such an impractical outfit was
meant for poolside lounging; perhaps it was worn in a photo layout of
Jane Russell or Marilyn Monroe, who often posed in Catalina creations,
or by a contestant in Catalina's Miss Universe beauty pageant.1 Whatever the case, this swimsuit is most likely one-of-a-kind; its $1,000 price tag limited its commercial appeal.2

c. 1955-58
Gift of Anonymous Donor


As with many 1950s bathing suits, the focal point is the upper half of the body. A halter-style neckline draws attention to shapely shoulders, while inner boning creates the structured cone or torpedo bust often seen in 1950s swimwear. The low-cut, skirt-style hem hides the upper thighs; this discreet cut was nearly ubiquitous in 1950s swimwear.

Though the front of this swimsuit is relatively modest, the back is another story. With a jeweled halter encircling the neck and a low-cut back, this swimsuit is definitely about display, not function. The deep-V cut frames the wearer's back, while the attached sash draws attention to this expanse of suntanned skin.

2008105-42008.10.5 Back view

As demonstrated by Catalina's rhinestone encrusted swimsuit, 1950s swimwear was about display and fantasy. Plain black swimsuits, so popular today, were uncommon. Instead, color, pattern, and sometimes texture, dominated swimwear. A 1957 swimsuit fashion show held in Los Angeles showcased the variety of swimwear available to consumers. Swimsuits ranged from a demure white eyelet suit with flared skirt to a racy leopard patterned high-waisted bikini. Metallic maillots, skirted suits of pink, orange and red, "swimmable" tweeds, batik prints, and sharkskin-textured suits rounded out the offerings. Many swimsuits were accompanied by matching cover-ups, including coats and skirts. Trends to watch for included, "cotton that looks like silk brocades…embroideries on stretch backgrounds and glittering sea-going stuffs that are down to earth in price."3

2008105-22008.10.5 Hem detail


1 Kennedy, Sarah. The Swimsuit: A History of Twentieth-Century Fashions (London: Carlton Books, 2010) 294.
2 A $1,000 price tag is typewritten on a white ribbon and sewn into the garment's lining.
3 Fay, Hammond. "Fashion Get Into the Swim: '58 Model Swimsuits Previewed." Los Angeles Times (Nov. 7 1957) A1.


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