This week’s treasure from the archive is a one-piece black elastane swimsuit by Janet Dickinson. It is a striking design with an unusual frilled decorative detailing and an asymmetric shoulder strap. This costume dates from around 1955 to 1960 and as I will show displays many of the quintessential 1950s traits of design and shaping.
This costume is currently in the archive, taking a rest from its busy schedule on the fantastic touring exhibition Beauty and the Beach. The exhibition displays many show-pieces from the Mavis Plume swimsuit archive. Mavis Plume was a swimming enthusiast and swimsuit collector whose collection now resides within the Beecroft.
As a volunteer at the Beecroft I have spent a great deal of time with the Plume collection. My role in part is creating computer records for these swimsuits onto a database, from which the costumes can be easily searched through. This has meant documenting over 400 swimsuits from 1900 to 2015! Handling these costumes I have seen the beauty of the simple swimsuit, acting as a marker to trace fashion changes. Through fabric, structure and design swimsuits always reflect the era in which they were created.
Elastane and the Synthetic Revolution
This costume is made of Elastane otherwise known as spandex or its branded name lycra. Is a lightweight synthetic fibre that was first used in underwear in 1958, and soon crossed over into swimwear. Its usage in this swimsuit meant a tighter, streamlined fit. As synthetics such as elastane were invented there was a revolution in fashion fibres and clothing was awash with synthetics such as bri-nylon. Stretchy, durable fibres meant the baggy and ill-fitting woollen costumes of the early 1900s were relegated firmly in the past.
Yet these early wool costumes were easy to put on in comparison to the tightness of 1950s elastane costumes. To overcome this the swimsuit in focus has a central back zip, enabling easy access for the wearer to get in- and most importantly to clinch her body into a structured hourglass shape.
The hourglass figure
This swimsuit, like other fifties costumes, has internal shaping to grant the wearer the gift of the perfect figure. This is not unusual, as I have been working with the swimwear archive I have found that padding and boning was prolific in 1950s swimwear, as shown in the images below- all boned swimsuits from the Mavis Plume archive.
The black elastane costume has a lined bust with boning in the sides and centre, that would create uplift and a firm foundation. The bust is an important feature with a decorative fluted design with embroidered white dots, on the right bust cup. The bust was a focus for 1950s fashion, as was the ‘hourglass’ shape promoted widely through Dior’s New Look. Another design feature to help shape the body is the front girdle, which stretches over the top of the wearer’s legs. This maintained modesty by concealing the upper thighs but also kept the abdomen flat- again efforts to create the idealistic hourglass figure.
The shaping of the body through the costume was all to be reversed in later decades. Spandex came into its own, with the development of skintight racer-back swimsuits in the 1970 and 1980s. These high-cut swimsuits displayed previously concealed, problematic areas, and wearers had to tone their bodies to fit into swimsuits, as opposed to the swimsuit shaping the wearer.
Evening wear influences
Although over sixty years old this costume is still in good condition. A likely reason being it was not worn for swimming, but worn beside the pool or for sunbathing on the beach. Costumes like these abound in the 1950s, with their quality fabrics and clever embellishments, they weren’t designed for submergence or athletic exercise. Waist cinching zips and boned busts would also prevent energetic swimming.
In fact this costumes original design of the layered bust cup and hip section and asymmetric straps echoes evening wear trends of the time and one can easily envisage the design transplanted onto a bodice for a full-length evening gown.
The monochromatic look, of black and white spots seems to predate the Space-Age aesthetic that seeped into fashion in the years to come. French designers such as André Courrèges and Pierre Cardin used geometric shapes and cut-outs, in simplistic colours to create clothes for the ‘future.’ This swimsuit heralds these designs but is still firmly planted within 1950s rigid fashion mentality of firm foundations and proper decorum (with a covered and girdled body)
The 1960s would see the general acceptance of the bikini, although one-piece swimsuits continued to be worn. But the skin would be revealed like never before in Rudi Gernreich’s monokini- the topless bathing suit…
Above images copyright of Victoria and Albert Museum and Kyoto Costume Institute