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Early Two-Piece Bathing Suit

Two-piece bathing suit worn by Lois Nelson of Racine, Wisconsin, c. 1947.
(Museum object #2003.113.6A-B)

More than a decade before Brian Hyland belted out his 1960 ode to the famous “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” Racine, Wisconsin native Lois Nelson, born in 1920, wore this considerably more modest — yet still daring — midriff-baring two-piece bathing suit, probably before her 1948 marriage to John McComb and subsequent move to Stevens Point, Wisconsin. When designed in the late 1940s by famous designer Elsa Schiaparelli for Los Angeles swimsuit manufacturer Catalina, this form-hugging style made of red-gathered cotton on stretchy elastic was still known simply as the “two-piece.”

The first two-piece garments were introduced in the late 1920s — a rather shocking turn from the heavy, fussy and outrageously modest garments of the previous generation — but would not become an acceptable part of a woman’s swimming wardrobe until the 1940s. In 1941 Sears and Roebuck first featured two-piece styles in its catalogs. By 1943, in the midst of World War II, the United States government passed legislation to reduce the materials used on women’s bathing costumes by ten percent to help with the war effort, propriety dictating it be removed from the garment’s torso.

The government's action guaranteed that the two-piece bathing suit not only gained in popularity, but also in social acceptability, to a point. Even though the skimpier “bikini” — named in honor of a Marshall Island atoll in the Pacific where the hydrogen bomb had recently been tested — was introduced internationally in 1946, it proved so scandalous that suits any more scant than ones like Nelson’s would not be widely seen in the United States until the late 1950s.

Nonetheless, following World War II, the bathing suit industry flourished, as Americans eagerly purchased frivolities they had forgone during years of conflict. With materials like rubber and newly developed nylon now readily available on the open market, ready-to-wear lines made swimsuits more affordable then they had been in the previous decade. In addition, post-war Americans traveled more freely to beaches and other recreation spots. Even when they didn’t leave their home, burgeoning middle-class suburban families possessed more time for leisure, taking full advantage of larger yards and patios for lounging, with some even adding private swimming pools.

As a company, Catalina in particular strove to reach the growing middle-class. Though Italian Elsa Schiaparelli had made an indelible mark in high fashion since the late 1920s by challenging fashion traditions and using new-fangled approaches to design, Catalina made her name attainable to the masses. Its publicity approach differed from their competitors like the more sport-centric swimsuit designer Jantzen, or Hollywood focused Cole of California. By founding the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, the Catalina reached a much wider audience. While Catalina also eventually enlisted the skills of other famous designers like Hollywood wardrobe maven Edith Head, the company continued to base its success on its appeal to the all-American, girl next door.

[Sources: Ewing, Elizabeth. History of 20th Century Fashion (Lanham, MD: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992); Lothrop, Gloria Ricci. The California Swimsuit: A Synergy of Forces Spell Success, (online at; Susan Raymond, Anne Dettmet and Jonathan Walford. In the Swim (online at]


Posted on August 24, 2006

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