December 13, 2006
Given Australia's obsession with the beach, it seems curious that vintage swimsuits long remained largely neglected as a collectable. Vintage fashion accessories such as handbags, shoes and sunglasses have skyrocketed in appeal - and now the boom of the humble cossie appears to have started.
Just as vintage men's watches have become a chic female fashion, classic swimsuits are now starting to be worn on beaches, especially older-style bikinis.
The golden period for swimwear can be defined by technology. Lycra (an artificial stretch fabric made by Invista) took over the world of swimwear about 1980 and most collectors concentrate on the postwar pre-Lycra period (although, given the popularity of everything 1980s, Lycra examples could well be the collectables of the future).
Cotton, rayon and similar space-age fibres were the main materials used in the immediate postwar period, along with oddities such as denim, terry-towelling and the celebrated crocheted bikinis of the early 1970s.
The first swimsuits were made of thick wool. Examples of these are keenly sought after and priced accordingly. Recently a prewar Jantzen swimsuit (featuring its famous diving girl logo) was spotted in a locked glass case at a suburban Vinnies with a $75 "as is" price tag. It was still a bargain at that price, if only because so few of the old woolies have survived the ravages of moths. Even 1950s swimsuits are now selling for more than $100.
In Australia the first bikinis were imported after World War II but this once scandalous style only gained general acceptance here in the late 1950s. One-piece designs are more likely to be found from this decade. Collectors especially prize the exotic cotton-print fabrics that were a feature of this period. In the mid-1960s the bikini, rapidly shrinking in size, began to dominate sales and by the mid-1970s the one-piece was under threat of extinction.
Paula Stafford is generally credited with being the first local manufacturer of bikinis, making them from shower-curtain material at her home in Surfers Paradise.
Because of this claim to fame any swimsuit bearing her name is valued highly. In theory, there should be plenty around. She continued in business until the 1970s, when she had a workshop employing 50 people and was selling through a network of shops in most states.
In common with many of the early designers, Stafford sold beach ensembles with matching hats, capes, beach bags and in some cases towels. A complete set is extremely rare and would be worth much more than the swimsuit alone. Collectors also seek vintage sun hats and beach bags, even early bottles of tanning lotion (to display, not to use).
Another pioneering Australian swimwear designer was Helene Walder, a former cabaret singer from the Gold Coast. In the early 1950s the Melbourne label Prudence Jane - "made to measure in Gay Cottons" - was selling bikinis through Pix magazine, along with racy photos of girls modelling them.
In the 1960s some of the more popular brands were Sandy Shaw, Cole of California, Dolphin Beachwear, Capri Sportswear and Maglia of Melbourne. Brian Rochford, a milliner by trade, released his first range of swimwear in this decade, on his way to becoming the best-known Australian beachwear designer of the 1980s. Those early Rochford designs are now quite collectable.
One problem with early swimwear is identification. Because the garment was fairly small, some manufacturers didn't bother to sew on labels, relying on a swing tag to identify the brand. This was cut off and thrown away after purchase. In some cases the brand can be traced through the pattern but not always. A swimsuit with a label attached is therefore a bonus. If the design can be positively dated through a catalogue or magazine, even better.
Finding vintage swimsuits requires a different technique to most collectables. Because of the effects of salt water and chlorine, these items were not intended to be kept more than one or two seasons. A few still turn up in vintage clothing shops (in most cases still priced less than the equivalent new swimsuit) but they are more likely to be found in the wardrobes of the women who originally wore them. Swimsuits were often kept for sentimental reasons, perhaps as a souvenir of a honeymoon or a particularly exciting holiday. These are powerful symbols of summers past.
Enterprising collectors have placed "old bikinis wanted" advertisements in local papers, with good results.
Occasionally boxes of unworn, mint-condition cossies have turned up at auctions, complete with original swing tags.
According to one collector, this happens because swimwear goes out of fashion so quickly, sometimes from one summer to the next.
Items from three or four years ago are near impossible to shift so unsold samples tend to be dumped in storerooms and forgotten about for a few decades. Finding one of these lost boxes is something most collectors dream about.
It may not be exactly swimming weather in your neck of the woods but now's the time to get ready for vacations to warm places or perhaps start looking for that fab vintage suit you plan on fitting in next Summer! VFG Sellers like Retro Rags Wisconsin and Glamoursurf have some great deals on vintage goodies for the beach or pool.