The Swim Suit Saga

So, I guess we’ve got Annette Kellerman to blame for all this summertime fashion folderol.

Wait… You’ve never heard of her either?

Why, back in 1907 she caused quite a sensation before members of the English royal family, while giving a swimming and diving exhibition, when she was forbidden to show any bare leg. Oh, the horror!

So, she improvised by buying a long pair of black stockings and sewing them onto a boy's short racing swimsuit. And thus, the women’s one-piece swimsuit was born.

Now, mind you, Annette Kellerman had become famous for her Australian advocation of the right of women to wear a one-piece bathing suit, which was a controversial topic in the early 20th century. But what really made her famous, however, was this one-piece bathing suit. You see, in the early 1900s, women were expected to wear cumbersome dress and pantaloon combinations when swimming. But that year, at the height of her popularity, Kellerman was arrested on a Boston beach for indecency - she was wearing one of her fitted one-piece costumes which, at the time, was considered simply scandalous! The resulting newspaper headlines and outpouring of public indignation were a death-knell for Victorian attitudes towards women's swimwear. As she told the press: “I can't swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline.” And the rest was history.

Four years later, a woman dubbed “Miss Aphrodite” by the local newspaper the Venice Vanguard, appeared at the Venice Plunge in a new Annette Kellerman bathing costume and created quite a sensation. The suit, a plain one-piece tank, sans stockings, excited quite a bit of comment and the embarrassed lady fled the environs amid male cheers, laughter and applause. The only adverse comments came from a few women who labeled the unfortunate swimmer “bold.”

Bold enough to cause such a ruckus that by July 5, 1911, an ordinance went into effect in Venice which prohibited wearers of bathing suits, without a covering garment, from stopping along the street to visit neighbors or businesses. It also stated that those sitting on the beach had to be modestly covered. The reason for the law was the “so-called sprawlers.” This was “a crowd of young men who have a habit of entering the surf and then going up on the sand to lay around in a lewd way.” The ordinance was misunderstood by many, and residents and visitors alike were wearing robes even to wade in the ocean.

Now, Abbot Kinney was a man made for promotion. His new town relied on promotion and tourism to help pay the bills, and I’m sure Mr. Kinney was well aware of the changing of the swimsuit guard that was in the air. Women were coming into their own, and his beachside resort was at the cutting edge of this revolution in swimwear. He probably also had connections with William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner, where he most likely joined with them in co-sponsoring events to take advantage of this newfangled fad.

So, the following summer, 1912, the first bathing beauty contest ever held in this country took place along the Venice boardwalk. Sponsored by the Los Angeles Examiner initially, it became a much-anticipated and talked-about affair. And yet again, another Venice first!

This annual bathing suit parade officially opened the summer tourist season for Venice. Which meant that the town would be invaded once again by a large crowd. In 1915, the Chief of Police, town Mayor and Fire Chief led the illustrious parade. Grammar school children were next in line and then came the girls in their 1915 swimwear. They rode floats, autos, Electriquettes, and in rolling chairs and it was what the crowd had come to see. Goat carts, a Joker’s Band and Charlie Chaplin brought up the rear. The 24 floats were sponsored by bay area businesses and five judges were selected to award the $50, $15 and $10 prizes.

1916’s annual Bathing Suit Parade once again marched down the Ocean Front Walk. Girls in wonderful swimming costumes sat on the seat backs of 1916 automobiles, which drove slowly down the crowded boardwalk. One hundred and two entries made the event the largest ever assembled in Venice. Immediately after the parade, a city ordinance went into effect prohibiting any more public exhibition of swimwear. The processions did not meet with the general approval of citizens, but the Chamber of Commerce, by unanimous vote, supported the annual event. Moviemakers like Mack Sennett used the parades to advertise their latest comedies. Starlets, three or more to a car, wore fetching beachwear to attract attention and banners with the photoplay’s name were attached to the cars’ front and rear.

But in reality, the controversy aroused by this event in 1916 revealed a conflict within the community between the traditional attitudes about women and the “liberal” ones that emerged out of the desire for profits by business interests. The Santa Monica Bay Ministerial Union had opposed the parade, organized by local amusement interests. Protesting to the Venice Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Trustees, they charged that the parade was illegal (it violated a city ordinance prohibiting public appearance in a bathing suit without an outer cover), immodest, and detrimental to the best interests of the city.

The Chamber of Commerce replied: “We find that there is absolutely no element of immodesty existing. Becoming costumes on pleasant appearing and modest young women which were in thorough keeping with our principles as a beach resort city constituted the event...” The Board of Trustees compromised. Succumbing to the immediate interests of the business community, they refused to cancel the parade that year but they placated the long-term interests of the ministerial union by resolving not to sanction such a parade in the future. Apparently, that resolution was quickly forgotten. And business interests won out, again.

Despite the moralists’ ban on bathing suit parades, one with 200 contestants was held to another record crowd in Venice the following year. The girls were driven on the parade route to show off their 1917-style suits of knitted wool or silk. It was cloudy until the moment the procession was to begin and then the sun broke out in all its smiling glory. So dense was the crowd that many did not even catch a glimpse of any of the beauties vying for awards. The motorcade meandered around the city streets before bringing its cargo to the foot of the Pier, where the judging was held. It was noted that there was an absence of one-piece suits and fewer of the dimpled heavyweights seen in other years. Mary Thurman was the winner and 25 ladies were awarded prizes.

That summer, J.J. Lewis, then mayor of Venice, became a little worried about what seemed an obvious slippage of public morality on the local sands, and demanded that the Venetian modesty codes be enforced. “Bathing suits must be modest and not cut too low over the chest and back. Men’s trousers must extend down to the knee. Skintight suits will not be tolerated. Bathing gowns which button up the front must be worn over the suit.”

In a swimsuit promotion from that Fall, put out by the International Film Service, the printed headline reads: ‘Southern California Bathing Resorts campaign against the “ABBREVIATED BATHING SUIT.” Venice, California adopts the Barrel Suit.’ Then there’s a large photo of five gals in swim hats. Each is crouched inside a large barrel with staves. You can only see their heads. Two cops and an unidentified official stand in back of the barrels. Underneath is this quote by one officer: “I certainly hate to do it - but orders are orders - so kindly wrap the “Stave-in” little suit around yourself and keep it there until you take your plunge into the surf.” There’s also a photo from the time of officers measuring the back of one lady’s suit, to make sure it conforms to the strict regulations, while a whole line of women wait their turn behind her.

But, to be sure, the local police, recognizing a good thing when they saw it, refused to follow the good mayor’s advice. And the swim suit saga continued.

By 1920, another enormous crowd attended the now famous Bathing Suit Parade and 60,000 gawkers pushed into spaces along the short procession route. Only those with marine or opera glasses really got a good look because of the great multitude of onlookers. Among the 200 contestants, only the swimmers wore tight or close-fitting knit costumes and a few had rubber suits. The contestants passed in front of the viewing stand at the band plaza and a woman remarked humorously that the balance of the crowd was one female to twenty-five males. “It is not the bathing suits that the men came to see. It’s the girls who are in them,” she chuckled.

And so the pageantry was born. And not on the East Coast, as many would assume, but right here in Venice. The Miss America pageant, America’s initial exposure to this swim suit bonanza, was first held in Atlantic City, New Jersey on September 7, 1921, under the title “Inter-City Beauty” contest. This unique American tradition began as a promotional gimmick when Atlantic City hotelmen decide to stage a flashy fall festival to entice summer tourists to stay in town past Labor Day. The fall festival included a “National Beauty Tournament” on the beach to select “the most beautiful bathing beauty in America.”

The following year, local newsman Herb Test added the crowning touch when he exclaimed, “Let’s call her ‘Miss America!’” Eastern newspaper editors were invited to run photo contests to pick winners to represent their communities at the new pageant.
And in Venice, the Miss California contestant was chosen among the local bathing beauties to compete.

That is, until 1924, when the first official Miss California was crowned at the pier up in Santa Cruz. And on through 1985, when the “bathing suit” contest was moved to Fresno.

Interestingly enough, in the mid-60s, fashion commentators started speculating gleefully about the end of the swimsuit. The year before, 1964, had brought the introduction of the famous “topless” bathing suit, designed by Rudi Gernreich. One L.A. department store staged a window display at the time, inspired by the topless suit. In full view of passersby on Wilshire Boulevard, a hanger labeled “Yesterday” held an old-fashioned, one-piece Annette Kellerman suit; another hanger labeled “Today” supported the Gernreich topless, and a third captioned “Tomorrow” supported nothing at all.

Could this be providence that the swim suit industry foresaw the rise of the nude beach of Venice, 1974? I won’t even go there…