1950s Swimwear

1950s Swimwear

In this post, we will talk about the history of the bikini, 1950s swimsuit styles, the swimwear designer Rose Marie Reid and the iconic brand Catalina, swimwear in 1950s cinema and provide examples from our rentals collection. 

The Bikini

Bare midriffs had been introduced for beachwear in the late 30s and were somewhat popular during the war because they needed less fabric for construction. French designer Jacques Heim took it a step further after the war, with his two-piece navel-exposing suit L’Atome. It was unveiled a few days after the atom bomb test on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Soon after, Louis Réard made a bathing suit with less than a square foot of material- the ‘bikini’. It was what we call today a string bikini with partial buttocks on show. Most American public beaches banned these types of suits for several years but Heim’s design caught on with the public and became known as the bikini rather than Réard’s more risqué design. 


Left: Jacques Heim’s Atom swimsuit. 

Right: 18 year old nude dancer Micheline Bernardini wearing Louis Réard’s bikini in Paris in 1946. 

“The rise of the film industry and Hollywood glamour, which celebrated the female form in its entirety, had a big impact on the swimwear industry. In 1952, Bridget Bardot starred in the French film Manina, The Girl in the Bikini. At just 17, Bardot was one of the first women to sport a bikini on the big screen. In 1956, Bardot appeared bikini-clad again in And God Created Woman. These appearances brought the bikini into mainstream media, thus beginning the garment’s transition from outrageous and shocking to everyday.” - FIT blog. 

Bellow: Brigette Bardot- The Girl in the Bikini, 1952.

One Piece Suits

However, one piece suits were still the most common, especially in America. In the 50s, strapless suits made from shirred acetate with feature bustlines were common.

Some notable American 50s swimwear designers include Claire McCardell, Tina Leser, Tom Brigance and Carolyn Schurer. Brand names include Jantzen, Cole of California, Catalina, Rose Marie Reid, Elizabeth Stewart and BVD. 

Tops usually had cups, lining and even boning- essentially beach corsets! Rubber panties could be worn beneath to improve shaping. All of this was to look good rather than swim comfortably!

Suits could be in solid colours or a variety of bold patterns like gingham, stripes, fruit, tropical themes, floral or novelty art prints. 

Speedo introduced nylon to swimwear in 1956. Stretch was increased, drying time reduced and the garment held its shape better. Lastex was added to acetate, taffeta and cotton. These materials created most of the swimsuits of the 50s. They were much weightier in comparison to today’s ultra light fabrics. 

One-piece suits (also called maillots or tank suits) came in various styles:

  • Princess/sheath style with sweetheart necklines and tight skirts at the front. They could have removable crossover straps- pioneered by McCardell. Flattering ruching at the sides or front was also popular and they could be zipped up the back. 




  • The bubble swimsuit had a puff skirt instead of a tight pencil one. Alternatively, the legs of the swimsuit could have ruffles. This was to enhance the hip area for an hourglass effect. 
  •  Babydoll suits had shorts instead of a skirt, like a romper. They could have pockets and cuffed hems. In the late 50s, they could feature empire waists with bands or bows under the bust.






  • Sarong style had a skirt overtop the suit that wrapped around and tied at the side or front. 


  • More modest styles included the ballerina swim dress that had a circle skirt swung over the hips and bloomer shorts beneath, either attached or separate.

Rubber swimcaps were worn by synchronized swimmers in bright colours and were often highly texturized with petals or pineapple patterns. 

Cotton or terry cloth swim jackets or robes were worn out of the water, either matching the swimsuit or in white. They could be belted or buttoned and often had large pockets. 

Swimwear in 1950s movies worn by famous actresses of the day:

Elizabeth Taylor- A Place in the Sun, 1951. Costume designer: Edith Head. 

Elizabeth Taylor- Suddenly Last Summer, 1959. Costume designer: Oliver Messel. 

Joan Collins- The Adventures of Sadie/ Our Girl Friday, 1953. Costume designer: Loudon Sainthill. 

Deborah Kerr-From Here to Eternity, 1953, wearing a halter-neck romper style swimsuit. Costume designer: Jean Louis. 

Marilyn Monroe- How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953, wearing a coral swimsuit with crystal-embellished bandeau. Costume designer: Travilla. 

Grace Kelly- To Catch a Thief, 1955, wearing a buttercup yellow swimsuit. Costume designer: Edith Head.

Grace Kelly- High Society, 1956, Costume designer: Helen Rose.

Swimsuit Designer: Rose Marie Reid

Born Rose Marie Yancey in Alberta in 1906, the budding designer moved with her family to Idaho in 1916. 

At 19, she purchased a beauty salon in Oregon in 1925 and married her first husband. When this marriage ended in 1935, she moved to Vancouver and married Jack Reid, solidifying her professional name. Jack complained about the discomfort of his swimsuit, which prompted her to set up Reid’s Holiday Togs in 1936, selling through Hudson’s Bay Department store. Typical features of her swimsuits from this time included lacing up both sides. In her first year of business, she designed only 6 suits but made $10,000. Australian swimmers wore her suits in the British Empire Games. In 1942, she introduced the hugely successful Skintie line. 

Unfortunately, her second marriage also ended in divorce and she eventually moved to California in 1949, setting up Rose Marie inc. there while still operating the original business in Canada. In 1946, her swimsuits accounted for 50% of all swimsuit sales in Canada.

Rita Hayworth wore her ‘glittering metallic lamé’ swimsuit to publicize the 1946 classic Gilda.

She lived at her factory in Los Angeles before she was able to buy a home there. The Canadian branch was eventually phased out. 

She worked with the best advertising agencies and created memorable ad campaigns and marketing techniques including fashion shows.

She used inner brasseries, tummy tuck panels, stay-down legs, elastic banding, brief skirts and foundation garments in her designs. She was the first designer to introduce dress sizes in swimwear. She filed for a patent in 1950 for an elastic bathing suit without buttons. Her company also patented a machine for the faggoting stitch. 

Among her designs was the bestselling ‘Hourglass” suit released in 1951. Her “Magic-Length” line was also very popular throughout the 50s. 

She had sales offices throughout America and Europe. She travelled frequently for work and was the first woman in America to travel 500,000 miles.  

Emilio Pucci did fabric design for the company in the late 50s and early 60s. 

In 1955, she was named one of the ten ‘women of the year’ by the Los Angeles Times. 1958, she was awarded the ‘Sporting Look of the Year’ award by Sports Illustrated. Her company was making $18.1 million by 1960. 

Her swimsuits appeared in a number of beach party movies in the 50s and 60s including Gidget, Muscle Beach Party and Where the Boys Are. Her company was synonymous with Southern California beach culture. 

Reid left her company in 1963 over disagreements about bikinis. “I don’t like bikinis, and I don’t want to design for a company that makes them.” Musingwear acquired the business and continued without Reid.

She passed away in 1978 in Utah. The largest holding of Rose Marie Reid's papers and swimsuits is in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections of the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University in Utah. The library launched a 9 month exhibit of her work in 2015. 

Above: 1959 ‘Jewels of the Sea’ advert- a cotton Indian print (by Soptra Fabrics Corp.) pleat-skirt swim dress. Illustration by Betty Brader. We have this suit in a different colour way in our collection 😊

Swimwear Brand: Catalina

Catalina swimwear started out in 1907 as Bentz Knitting Mills, a Los Angeles manufacturer of underwear and sweaters. They expanded to include swimwear in 1913 and changed their name to Pacific Knitting Mills. The name changed again in 1928 when its founder passed away and it became the Catalina we know today, presided over by Edgar Stewart. 

In the 1920s, they introduced the striped ‘chicken suit’, the men’s ‘speed suit’ and ‘rib-stitch S’ suits. 


They adopted the slogan “Styled for the Stars of Hollywood” in the 1930s. Actresses such as Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland appeared in their campaigns. Swimsuits were sold for between 5 and 10 dollars in in the 1930s. 


In the 1940s, they hired Hollywood costume designers to design for them, including Orry Kelly, Milo Anderson, Edith Head and Travis Banton. They used beautiful hand block prints on their suits with whimsical fish, bird, boat and flower motifs.

For 12 years, the head designer was Mary Ann DeWesse- who formed her own company, DeWesse Designs, in 1951. Stars like Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford were also photographed in Catalina swimsuits.


The brand sponsored the Miss America beauty pageant in the 40s and went on to found the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants as a promotion tactic in 1952. Their new slogan became “Around the World…It’s Catalina” as they expanded into other countries. In 1960, the pageants began airing on television around the world, showcasing the Catalina brand and intertwining it with the idea of California cool and American culture. 


Designer Elisabeth Stewart (daughter of the company’s president) went on to found her own company in the late 50s. 

Catalina had license agreements in South America and sponsored beauty pageants in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. 

They enjoyed success for many decades before going bankrupt in the 90s and were then acquired by Authentic Fitness Group. They paired with Cole’s of California and became ‘Catalina Cole’, selling through Walmart. 

Today, the brand is manufactured in Brazil. 

We have a red cotton abstract print 1950s Catalina bikini for sale.

We also two 50s swimsuits in the rentals collection- a pink plaid babydoll/romper style one and a yellow tropical print sarong style swimsuit with a front faux-wrap skirt. 

Some of the other suits in our colllection:


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