American swimwear and sportswear firm
Founded: in 1907 by John C. Bentz as Bentz Knitting Mills, manufacturing underwear and sweaters; renamed Pacific Knitting Mills (1912), Catalina Knitting Mills (1928), and Catalina, from 1955. Company History: knitted swimwear introduced, 1912; sponsor, Miss America pageant until 1951 dispute; originated and sponsored additional pageants, including Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss Universe, 1950s; company purchased by Kayser-Roth apparel division of Gulf & Western Company, 1975; bankruptcy, 1993; acquired by Authentic Fitness, 1997; combined with Cole of California to become Catalina Cole. Awards: Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Golden 44 award, 1979.
Lençek, Lina, and Gideon Bosker, Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America, San Francisco, 1989.
Koda, Harold, and Richard Martin, Splash! A History of Swimwear, New York, 1990.
Ross, Adele, "Catalina: A Giant Need Not Be Inflexible," in California Apparel News (Los Angeles), 1 October 1976.
Shaffer, Gina, "Catalina Charts New Course," in Man, January 1985.
"Bathing Beauties at One Time," Chicago Tribune, 18 February 1987.
Ryan, Thomas J., "Authentic Fitness Net Gains 52.7-Percent" inWWD, 27 January 1995.
D'Innocenzio, Anne, "Swimwear Dives, Hopes to Surface," in WWD, 10 August 1995.
Conklin, Mike, "Miss America Timeline," Chicago Tribune, 27October 2000.***
Catalina Sportswear evolved from an obscure California knitting mill into a world-leading swimwear manufacturer, reigning from the 1930s through the early 1990s. The U.S. and Eastern Europe experienced a physical fitness and sports craze in the 1920s and 1930s. Catalina, along with Jantzen in Oregon, shrewdly and stylishly propelled West Coast fashion into prominence as they filled the growing need for active outdoor clothes, especially swimwear.
The early wool knit suits, patterned after a simple one-piece style introduced to the U.S. by Australian swim star Annette Kellerman, allowed women new freedom in the water. They also challenged and broke down the Edwardian modesty codes. In the 1920s, Catalina produced increasingly baring and fashionable as well as functional swimwear, notably, the boldly striped Chicken Suit, men's Speed Suit, and Ribstitch "S" suits.
Catalina incorporated new fabrics into its products as fast as technology developed them. When Lastex, the rubber-cored thread, appeared in the 1930s, Catalina advertised the LA or "Lastex Appeal" in men's swim trunks. Lastex and Spandex, and Vyrene Spandex in the 1960s, would provide the elasticity and shaping power under and in combination with knits, cotton, velour, Celanese Rayon, DuPont Antron, nylon, and Lycra fabrics.
Particularly in the 1930s and 1940s the company had a symbiotic relationship with Hollywood. Warner Bros. costume designer Orry Kelly and film color consultant and makeup man Perc Westmore designed for Catalina. Starlets and stars like Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford, Ronald Reagan, and Marilyn Monroe were photographed in Catalina sportswear for advertising and publicity purposes. Such shots boosted the stars, the California mystique, pool and beach business, and Catalina sales. Catalina's influence was also intertwined with the myth and icon of the Miss America Beauty Pageant. When the company sponsored the contest in the 1940s, contestants wore essentially off-the-rack Catalina suits, except that pageant suits had the flying fish logo on both hips instead of one. Catalina dropped sponsorship of Miss America after 1951 winner Yolande Betbeze refused to wear a Catalina suit for the traiditonal swimsuit tour; the company then went on to found the Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss Universe pageants and cosponsored them for decades. Since 1960 television beamed contestants wearing Catalina styles with gold embroidered flying fish to worldwide audiences. Catalina's participation in these fashion and body-conscious fixtures in American culture exemplifies an underlying modus operandi to design suits that allowed women and men to show off their bodies in a fashionable, abbreviated, yet socially acceptable garment.
In its long history, Catalina experienced bursts of innovative flair and attracted high profile design talent: swimwear designer Elizabeth Stewart went on to found her own company, while Lee Hogan Cass specially commissioned patterns in European-inspired browns and innovative citrus batiks that delighted consumers. Jacquard knit suits and casual wear in bright colors were a hit in Italy, and bikini-clad Europeans sought the maker of an innovative Grecian pleated suit seen on the Riviera.
Fashion editors of the better magazines paid close attention to Gustave Tassell's swimwear and coverups. After the boned and corseted 1950s suits, his natural styles without bra cups were a hit with the New York cognoscenti, including Diana Vreeland, as were the soft cup designs by Edith Stenbeck. Frank Smith, who went on to head Evan Picone for Saks Fifth Avenue, had designed women's sportswear for Catalina, just as John Norman, later with Vogue and Butterick patterns, designed menswear. Menswear tended toward the country club look, at times showing influences of Pierre Cardin. The Sweethearts in Swimsuits line in the 1950s offered his and hers matching swimsuits and accessories.
Catalina successfully expanded its lines to appeal to the widest possible audience, offering knits, menswear, children's, Catalina Jr., sporting gear, and classic and trendy styles. The company had a knack of producing well-made mainstream fashions which sold in high volume and allowed average buyers to feel stylish and comfortable.
In recent decades many lines were conservative versions of revealing trendmakers. At times they went head-to-head with the competition, countering Body Glove's slick neons with Underwets while the slimming Contour Suit was the answer to Jantzen's Five-Pounds Under line. Considering its ability to adapt, especially through changes in ownership, perhaps its logo should have been the chameleon, rather than a fish.
Cataline went into bankruptcy in 1993 and languished for several years. It was purchased by Authentic Fitness, a subsidiary of the Warnaco companies in 1997 and paired with another legendary West Coast swimwear producer, Cole of California. The new unit was renamed Catalina Cole, and was highly successful as a part of Authenic Fitness' swimwear division, which also included the Anne Cole Collection and Speedo.
Catalina was and continues to be a keystone of the California swim and sportswear industry, with worldwide influence. It began as an early 20th-century swimwear pioneer and has remained an important player in the American fashion industry as Catalina Cole. The company's fashions significantly contributed to women's athletic liberation and the propagation of the Hollywood and California looks as well as molding and perpetuating beauty pageant culture.
updated by NellyRhodes