Esther Williams is best known for her starring roles in MGM's aquatic musical films of the 1940s and 1950s—films which are often credited with introducing synchronized swimming to the world—but she was a pioneer in many other ways as well. Williams was one of the best competitive female swimmers of her day, and after becoming a movie star she became the first celebrity to have a product endorsement. She was also a pioneer in the design of women's swimsuits, creating designs which allowed women freedom of movement in the water.
Learning to Swim
Williams was born in a tiny house in southwestern Los Angeles, California, on August 8, 1922. She was the youngest of Louis Stanton Williams and Bula Myrtle Gilpin Williams's five children, and the only one of the bunch to have been born in California. The family had moved there after their oldest child, Stanton, became an actor at the age of six. The boy used to sneak into the theater in Salt Lake City, where the family lived, to watch rehearsals, and one day Broadway actress Marjorie Rambeau spotted him and recruited him. When Stanton died suddenly at the age of sixteen, the family was devastated, especially the eight-year-old Williams, who had been particularly close to him. In her autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams recalls deciding
at this time that she had to take Stanton's place as the family's hopes for being successful in those difficult Depression years.
It was only a few months later that Williams learned to swim. When her mother found out that the city was planning to build a park near their home, she convinced them to add a pool to the design. Her mother volunteered Williams to inaugurate the pool, even though Williams didn't know how to swim at the time. Williams's older sister Maureen took her to the beach and taught her. Even though Williams just barely completed her thirty-yard swim across the pool, she was greeted by cheers from the crowd that had come for the inauguration. Williams, already in love with the water and the accolades, was now hooked on swimming. She took a job at the pool so she could afford to swim there, and over her lunch breaks, the lifeguards taught her how to swim fast and well, with proper racing strokes, including men-only strokes like the butterfly.
In 1937, Williams was recruited to swim for the Los Angeles Athletic Club. This was a breeding ground for champions, and swimming on their teams was an honor for a young athlete. With the LAAC, Williams won two medals, in the 100 meter freestyle and the 400 meter relay, on her first day of competition at the 1939 national championships. On the second day, she was the first swimmer on the LAAC's 300 meter medley relay team. Most girls swam the breast stroke as their opening, but swimming the much more challenging butterfly was also allowed: so few people could do the stroke at that time that it was not worthwhile to make it a separate event. Williams beat the national record for that lap by an unheard of nine seconds.
A Career Change
Williams's three gold medals should have guaranteed her a place at the 1940 Pan American games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but she waited for her invitation in vain. A few weeks after the games, at the 1940 U.S. National championships, Williams learned from another athlete that she had indeed been invited. A stunned Williams confronted the LAAC coach, Aileen Allen, and discovered that Allen had received her invitation but had kept it hidden, fearing that Williams would spend her time in Buenos Aires partying and meeting boys and not training. Furious, Williams quit the LAAC team, forfeiting her chance to defend her titles.
|1922||Born August 8 in Los Angeles, California, the youngest of Lou and Bula Williams's five children|
|1937||Begins swimming for the Los Angeles Athletic Club|
|1939||Wins gold in three events at the U.S. National Championships|
|1940||Stars in the Aquacade show at the San Francisco World's Fair|
|1940||Marries Leonard Kovner, June 27|
|1941||Signs a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)|
|1942||Appears in her first movie, Andy Hardy's Double Life|
|1944||Divorces Leonard Kovnar|
|1944||Stars in Bathing Beauty, the first movie ever made that featured synchronized swimming|
|1945||Marries Ben Gage, November 25|
|1948||Becomes the first star to endorse a product, a line of swimsuits made by Cole of California|
|1949||Benjamin Stanton Gage born August 6|
|1950||Kimball Austin Gage born October 30|
|1952||Breaks three vertebrae filming Million Dollar Mermaid|
|1953||Susan Tenney Gage born October 1|
|1957||Divorces Ben Gage|
|1958||Begins a business selling backyard swimming pools|
|1961||Appears in her final starring role, in The Magic Fountain|
|1969||Marries Fernando Lamas, December 31|
|1982||Fernando Lamas dies of cancer October 8|
|1984||Becomes a sports commentator for synchronized swimming|
|1988||Launches her own line of swimsuits, The Esther Williams Collection|
|1999||Publishes her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid|
Williams still had a chance to make the 1940 Olympic team, but the outbreak of World War II forced the cancellation of those games. Williams even lost her chance to compete in swimming at the collegiate level when she got a D in her high school algebra class, which made her lose her swimming scholarship to the University of Southern California. Although Williams made up the class at Los Angeles City College, her career in the water had been indefinitely postponed, and she took a job as a stock girl at the upscale I. Magnin department store.
A month after Williams took that job, she received a call from the Aquacade, a swimming and diving show put on by producer Billy Rose at the New York World's Fair. The San Francisco World's Fair had now asked Rose to organize a similar show there. Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weismuller , who had starred in the New York version of the show, would be coming to San Francisco, but Rose needed to find a new female lead to swim opposite him. Rose, who had seen Williams in Life magazine, was in California auditioning swimmers, and he wanted Williams to be the lead. On her lunch break that day, in a swimsuit given to her as a gift from her supervisor at I. Magnin, Williams auditioned for Billy Rose. The next day, Williams left Los Angeles for San Francisco. She was now, before she had even turned eighteen, a professional swimmer.
Williams swam with the Aquacade the entire summer of 1940. She faced sexual harassment from many of the men, old and young, who were involved with the show—not an uncommon fate for female stars at that time, especially single ones. She was also cheated out of much of her salary by her agent. Frustrated at her powerlessness to remedy either situation, Williams agreed to marry a young medical student, Leonard Kovner, whom she had met while attending Los Angeles City College. The two were married between shows on June 27, 1940, shortly before Williams turned 18. Kovner returned to school, and when the Aquacade closed on September 29, 1940, Williams returned to Los Angeles to join him.
The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio had sent representatives to the Aquacade to try to recruit her, but Williams turned them down. She went back to her job at I. Magnin and settled into her new life as a wife and soon, she hoped, a mother. However, MGM was not accustomed to people refusing them, and additionally, Williams's marriage to Kovner soon turned rocky. Nearly a year after the end of the Aquacade, Williams finally agreed to meet with the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer. Kovner and Williams separated over her decision to sign a contract with MGM, but by October of 1941, Williams was ensconced in her own dressing room, earning $350 a week and learning to be an actress.
Becomes a Movie Star
Williams's first screen role was in Andy Hardy's Double Life. The Andy Hardy movies were lighthearted fare about a teenage boy and his family. The series, although formulaic, had already proved to be a major success for MGM, and the studio often used roles in these films as tests for up-and-coming starlets. Williams passed with flying colors. Audiences loves the scene where she kissed Andy Hardy underwater, and the two-piece swimsuit that she wore in the movie became a fashion must-have.
Williams was soon cast in another romantic film. She played a swimming instructor at a girls' college, where Red Skelton's character tried to enroll to be able to woo her. The film was originally titled Mr. Coed, but after preview audiences raved over the aquatic finale, the title was changed to Bathing Beauty.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1939||U.S. Nationals 100 meter freestyle, 400 meter relay, 300 meter medley|
|1953||Received Golden Globe award for Million Dollar Mermaid|
|1966||Inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame|
|1993||Received Femme Award from the Dallas Fashion Awards for contributions to the swimsuit industry|
|1997||Received Lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy Foundation, and the Museum of Modern Art|
Related Biography: Swimmer Annette Kellerman
If Esther Williams was the mother of synchronized swimming, Annette Kellerman was its grandmother. Williams was aware of this, and she had great respect for Kellerman, even titling her autobiography Million Dollar Mermaid after the movie she made about Kellerman's life.
Kellerman's career paralleled Williams's in many ways. Like Williams, Kellerman began as a swimmer, became a star of live water shows, and later became an actress.
Annette Marie Sarah Kellerman was born July 6, 1887 (some sources say 1888), in Sydney, Australia. As a child, she suffered from polio, which left her with weak, bowed legs, and she took up swimming to try to strengthen them. She was soon walking without leg braces, and by age ten she was a champion swimmer.
Kellerman excelled in distance swimming. After her family moved to England when she was fourteen, she swam the twenty-six mile length of the Thames River, from Putney to Blackwall, amid much media fanfare. It was unprecedented for anyone, let alone a teenage girl, to complete such a feat. Kellerman received many lucrative sponsorships for her long-distance swims, including her two failed attempts to become the first woman to swim the English Channel. Later, Kellerman parlayed this fame into a career in vaudeville, and she also made appearances at the London Hippodrome.
In 1907, Kellerman came to the United States, where she toured the country with a swimming and high-diving show. That summer, while performing in Boston, Kellerman achieved international notoriety by being arrested for indecent exposure. Her crime? She appeared on the city's Revere Beach wearing a unitard swimsuit which left her neck, all of her arms and much of her legs exposed. At that time, proper women "swam" as best they could in full, loose skirts and long-sleeve blouses.
Kellerman appeared in several silent films, starting in 1909 with three films in one year: The Bride of Lammermoor, Jepthah's Daughter: A Biblical Tragedy, and The Gift of Youth. She caused another moral scandal with the skinny-dipping scenes in her next film, Neptune's Daughter (1914), but she went on to star in several more movies, including Daughter of the Gods (1916), Queen of the Sea (1918) The Art of Diving and What Women Love, both 1920, and her final film, Venus of the South Seas, in 1924. After she married and retired from film, Kellerman opened a health food store in the Pacific Palisades.
The finale of Bathing Beauty is often credited with inventing synchronized swimming as we know it today. In a brand new, ninety by ninety foot pool with $250,000 worth of special-effects rigging, scores of swimmers practiced for ten weeks to create elaborate patterns, lines, and pinwheels as they swam and dove in unison. Williams claimed in her autobiography that, due in large part to this finale, Bathing Beauty grossed more than any other film of the time except Gone With the Wind.
Many people immediately embraced synchronized swimming as it was demonstrated in Bathing Beauty. The first synchronized swimming competition in the United States was held in Chicago about a year after the film's release. Over the years, early fans of the sport contacted Williams and asked for her advice in starting their own synchronized swimming team. With the help of her mother, Williams put together instructional packets to send to them. In only eleven years, the sport gained enough international recognition to become an event at the Pan American games, and the next year, 1956, synchronized swimming became an Olympic demonstration sport.
Williams was in the water in her next film, Thrill of a Romance, in which she plays a neighborhood swimming teacher who is torn between her absent husband and a young hero who is recovering from his war wounds. Thrill of a Romance was also a hit, but Williams's third movie, The Hoodlum Saint, flopped. This was a serious film, done in black and white, and Williams did not swim in it. MGM did not make those mistakes again soon. For her next several films, Williams was in the water, in lighthearted musical romances, in Technicolor.
Box Office Hits
In her next few movies, Williams played roles as varied as a rich young lady suing a newspaper for libel (Easy to Wed ), a woman who breaks into bullfighting by pretending to be her brother (Fiesta ), a movie star (On an Island with You ), and a swimsuit designer (Neptune's Daughter ), but all of them were variations on the same romantic theme. The films were not all critical successes, but by this time Williams's reputation was firm enough that the occasional uneven film did not hurt it: she was one of the top ten box office stars in the nation. Her personal life was looking up as well. Williams had married another show business figure, Ben Gage, in 1945. Although she had a traumatic miscarriage in 1946, by 1949 she had finally achieved her long-time wish to be a mother: Benjamin Stanton Gage was born on August 6 of that year.
Less than a year later, while shooting the film Pagan Love Song in Hawaii, Williams discovered that she was pregnant again. At that time, on the island of Kauai, calling the mainland was very difficult, but Williams needed to let someone back at MGM headquarters know her situation. Gage had met a ham radio operator while playing golf, and he convinced the man to let Williams use his radio to contact California. However, no one told Williams that anyone could be listening in on that conversation, so news of her pregnancy was broadcast to the entire West Coast.
In 1952, Williams made what is probably her bestknown movie, Million Dollar Mermaid, for which she won a Golden Globe award. This film is a biography of Australian swimming pioneer Annette Kellerman, and like most of Williams's films, it contains plenty of aquatic extravaganzas. One scene called for Williams, dressed in a gold bodysuit covered in gold sequins, a turban, and a crown, to do a swan dive from 50 feet above the water. The crown, made of aluminum, caused Williams's head to snap back when she hit the water, fracturing three vertebrae in her neck. She was in a cast from her neck to her knees for six months, but she made a nearly full recovery. The only lasting effect was that the three vertebrae fused as they healed, which sometimes causes Williams to get headaches.
This was not the first disaster or near-disaster Williams had undergone while working on a movie. While filming Pagan Love Song, she had almost been dashed to pieces against some coral while filming a scene on an outrigger canoe, and she filmed the second half of On an Island with You on crutches after she sprained her ankle falling into a hole. The script called for her to fall in, but the set designers had forgotten to put any padding at the bottom. Her closest call, before Million Dollar Mermaid, may have been in Texas Carnival. Again, it was the fault of the set designers' carelessness. One sequence called for Williams to swim around her leading man's bed as he dreamed of her. The set designers built a replica of the room, painted in black for the best contrast with Williams's white negligee, in the pool. They even put a ceiling on it, which was where the danger lay: Williams entered the room through a trapdoor, but when she needed to come up for air, she couldn't find the trapdoor from the inside. Luckily, a prop man noticed her distress and pulled her out before she drowned.
Where Is She Now?
Esther Williams lives in Beverly Hills, California, where she swims every day in her own pool. She and her husband, Edward Bell, collaborate in running her two successful businesses, designing and manufacturing swimsuits and selling backyard swimming pools. In 2003, Williams will be co-producer, choreographer and costume designer for a $30 million aquatic show in Las Vegas, Nevada, which tells the story of the Greek goddess Persephone through swimming, snowboarding, and ice skating. She is also working on a film version of her autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid.
Williams's career did not go well after Million Dollar Mermaid. She had been blamed when the 1954 film Jupiter's Darling flopped, even though the film had many faults, and in 1955, when MGM tried to assign her another film with a weak script, Williams packed up her things and walked out on her contract, forfeiting millions of dollars in deferred pay. She acted in four more films for other studios after that, but none were very well received. She also coordinated and participated in
some live shows, which had some success; one live show, in London, was sold out during its entire run.
Williams was also having problems in her personal life. Gage had mismanaged the couple's money, losing most of it and getting them into deep trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. The two eventually divorced in 1957. Williams later married the movie star Fernando Lamas, who had starred opposite her in the 1953 film Dangerous When Wet. The two met again in 1960, while Williams was producing the television special Esther Williams at Cypress Gardens, in which Lamas also swam. This special, which aired on Williams's birthday, was a huge hit: fifty-two percent of the televisions in the United States that were in use were tuned into it that night. Williams appeared in two more films in the early 1960s, but by the end of the decade she had settled down to be Fernando Lamas's wife and had disappeared from the public eye.
Williams the Swimsuit Designer
At the time that Williams first became a star, women's swimsuit design was still in its infancy. Lycra and other stretchable materials had not yet been invented, and wool was still a common swimsuit component. The costume designers at MGM had had little practice in designing swimwear for films, and their results, although creative, were often highly impractical, with sometimes disastrous results. Williams's seventh film, This Time for Keeps, was set on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan, and in keeping with the woodsy theme, Williams's costumer created a swimming suit out of plaid flannel. Flannel, being made of cotton, absorbs tremendous amounts of water, and the saturated swimsuit nearly dragged Williams to the bottom of the pool. In desperation she unzipped the suit and let it fall. Her costume designer, who luckily was poolside, had to cut a hole in the middle of a towel and drape it over Williams's head so she could get out of the pool without exposing herself to the crowds of tourists who had come to watch the filming. After that debacle, Williams participated much more actively in the design process.
In 1948, Williams was asked by designer Cole of California to endorse one of their swimsuits. This suit, one of the first ever to be made with latex, was revolutionary: the stretchable material meant that a zipper was no longer necessary. It also meant that the suit fit better and was more suitable for maneuvering in the water. Cole approached Williams independently of MGM and asked her to endorse the suit. At that time, celebrity endorsements were unheard of: while celebrity images were often used in advertisements, such uses were strictly controlled by the studio, and all profits went to the studio as well. After Williams won her fight with MGM to be allowed to make the deal, she made as much money per year from the endorsement as she did from her contract with MGM. Her success opened the door to the multi-million dollar endorsement deals from which today's athletes now profit.
Williams was also a star saleswoman for the Cole's suit. In 1952, MGM created a patriotic movie titled Skirts Ahoy!, about three young women in the Navy's "Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service" program. MGM worked closely with the Navy on the film, and the Navy asked them to dress their stars—Williams, Joan Evans, and Vivian Blaine—in regulation Navy dress. Williams was appalled when she saw the Navy's regulation women's swimsuit: it was made of a thin, shapeless, see-through cotton which was unflattering and uncomfortable, especially for well-endowed women who needed a suit which would support their bust. Williams managed to get an appointment with the Secretary of the Navy, where she modeled the regulation suit for him. One glimpse of the suit on her was enough to convince him of its faults, and by the end of their conversation, Williams had convinced him to make the Cole's suit the new regulation swimsuit and to order 50,000 of them on the spot.
After her acting career was over, Williams put these design and sales skills to use running her own swimwear company. Now worth $3 million, the Esther Williams Swimsuit Collection produces fashionable, practical suits for women who are not shaped like fashion models. "I have something for [women who do not have perfect bodies], to which I've given a great deal of thought because I'm all for wonderful-looking women." Williams told Marcy Medina of WWD. "I don't undress women at the beach, I dress them so they have a good time. She can throw a volleyball and the whole front of her suit won't fall down."
Godmother to a Sport
Although people had been competing in synchronized swimming since not long after the release of Bathing Beauty, and although it had been a demonstration sport at the Olympics since 1956, it did not become a medal event until 1984. The head of the International Olympic Committee during many of those years, Avery Brundage, did not consider something so pretty to be a real sport, and it was not until after his death that the Committee decided to make synchronized swimming a medal event. Williams returned to the public eye for the first time in twenty years around the time of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, acting as a television commentator for synchronized swimming events and being an honored guest at many of the special events celebrating the occasion.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY WILLIAMS:
(With Digby Diegh) The Million Dollar Mermaid, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Bawden, Liz-Ann, editor. The Oxford Companion to Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Contemporary Authors, Detroit: Gale, 2000.
Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, Ninth Edition. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988.
Williams, Esther, and Digby Diehl. Million Dollar Mermaid. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Agins, Teri. "Can Esther Williams Coax Older Women Back into the Pool?" Wall Street Journal (April 19, 1989): A1.
"Army Archerd." Daily Variety (April 18, 2002): 2.
Conn, Earl. "Different Strokes." Saturday Evening Post (November, 2000): 72.
Feitelberg, Rosemary. "Esther's Bold Strokes." WWD (February 6, 1997): 8-9.
Gottlieb, Robert. "Liquid Asset: A Memoir by Esther Williams, whose All-American Good Looks and Talent in the Water Turned Her Into a Hollywood Star." New York Times Book Review. (October 3, 1999): 11.
Haber, Holly. "Star Quality: Esther Williams Put Splashy Swimwear in the Spotlight." WWD (July 27, 1993): D7.
Holston, Kim R. Review of Million Dollar Mermaid. Library Journal (September 1, 1999): 196.
Lacher, Irene. "Esther Williams Swims Again at Film Festival." Los Angeles Times (January 14, 1995): F1.
Medina, Marcy. "Swim Goddess: For More Than Half a Century, Esther Williams Has Been a Glamorous and Influential Figure on the Swimwear Circuit." WWD (July 11, 2002): 36S.
Mehren, Elizabeth. "This Isn't Like Being in the Movies: Synchronized Swim Definitely a Sport, Says Esther Williams." Los Angeles Times (August 13, 1984): 4.
Michaelson, Judith. "Esther Williams Back at Poolside." Los Angeles Times (June 13, 1984): 1.
Murray, Jim. "Mermaid Who Started a New Olympic Sport." Los Angeles Times (August 2, 1984): 1.
Perry, Pat. "Esther Williams: Still in the Swim." Saturday Evening Post (January-February, 1998): 36-39.
Purdum, Todd. "Swimming Upstream." New York Times (September 2, 1999): D7.
Review of Million Dollar Mermaid. Entertainment Weekly (September 24, 1999): 141.
Review of Million Dollar Mermaid. People (September 20, 1999): 57.
Review of Million Dollar Mermaid. Publishers Weekly (August 23, 1999): 34.
Sachs, Andrea. "Eddie & Esther: Two Much Married Former Stars Cast a Look Backward." Time (September 27, 1999): 107.
Shapiro, Laura. "Telling Tales Out of Pool: Esther Williams Makes a Splash with a Fab Memoir." Newsweek (September 13, 1999): 69.
Thompson, David. "The Original Splash" (interview with Williams). Interview (February, 1998): 40-41.
Tribby, Mike. Review of Million Dollar Mermaid. Booklist (August, 1999): 1983.
Wedlan, Candace A. "Water Power." Los Angeles Times (July 9, 1997): E2.
CNN.com. http://www.cnn.com/ (September 29, 2002).
Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/ (September 29, 2002).
Sketch by Julia Bauder
Cole of California
COLE OF CALIFORNIA
American swimwear company
Founded: Formed by Fred Cole from family knitwear firm in Los Angeles, 1923. Company History: Began collaborating with Hollywood costume designer Margit Fellegi, 1936; signed Esther Williams to represent the company, 1950; began producing swimwear from Christian Dior, 1955; purchased by Kayser-Roth, early 1960s; sold to the Wickes Company; launched Anne Cole Collection, 1982; signed licensing agreement with Adrienne Vittadini, 1983-93; company purchased by Taren Holdings, 1989; Juice junior line debuted, 1990; acquired by Authentic Fitness Corp., combined with Catalina to form Catalina Cole, 1993; Anne Cole introduced the "tankini," 1997; ultimate parent, Warnaco, filed for bankruptcy protection, 2001. Awards: Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Golden 44 award, 1979. Company Address: Authentic Fitness, 6040 Bandini Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90040, U.S.A.
On COLE of CALIFORNIA:
Lencek, Lena, and Gideon Bosker, Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America, San Francisco, 1989.
Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda, Splash! A History of Swimwear, New York, 1990.
Sajbel, Maureen O., "Sea Notes: Anne Cole Takes the Plunge," in WWD, 28 July 1982.
Magiera, Marcy, "Swimwear Makers Aim for 'Older' Women," in Advertising Age, 21 April 1986.
Flint, Jerry, "Cover-Up: Cole of California," in Forbes, 2 May 1988.
D'Innocenzio, Anne, "Swimwear Dives, Hopes to Surface," in WWD, 10 August 1995.
Belgum, Deborah, "Swimming in a New Wave: Anne Cole," in Los Angeles Business Journal, 12 June 2000.
Robinson, Roxanne, and Rosemary Feitelberg, "Class of 75," in WWD, 10 August 2000.***
The high-water mark of swimwear exposure was 1964: Rudi Gernreich showed a topless bathing suit that achieved awestruck attention, but sold very few copies. Then Sports Illustrated, the New York magazine, began its annual swimsuit edition. Cole of California, in the same year, produced the three-item "scandal suit" collection that likewise plunged to new exposure with an astonishing commercial success, typifying the long tradition of Cole's being the most provocative—yet commercial—swimwear manufacturer in America.
Ever since former silent film star Fred Cole had first hitched his company's wagon to the stars of Hollywood, Cole had been a trendsetter, P.T. Barnum style. Cole knew by unerring instinct, like his film producing confréres, how to be sensational and to sell to the American public without being overly salacious. As Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker described in their book, Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America, "Cut extremely conservatively by mid-1960s standards, the Scandal suits put everything under wraps, at least theoretically. In practice, however, the vast expanses of see-through netting turned their wearers into sizzling sex goddesses."
If black mesh only made a plunging décolletage or midriff seem more radical and seductive in the tantalizing peekaboo of exposure or coverage, Cole encouraged the sensation in dramatic public events and publicity. Hence this American company was in the vanguard of what was already being described as a 1960s sexual revolution and seemed ready to bring all of its license to the beach. Fred Cole knew that going to the beach or pool was recreation, but that it was also a spectator sport.
Cole had three brilliant ideas, put into action step by step: first, he transformed the family's prosaic knit underwear firm into a swimsuit business; second, he seized upon California and Hollywood to bring glamor to the swimwear industry and specifically to the imagery of Cole of California; and third, he knew sex appeal would be determined in the middle and late years of the 20th century by public relations and popular opinion. The health and dress-reform issues of knitwear paled beside the excitement Cole brought to the swimwear industry. His conjunction to Hollywood, working with the ingenious designer Margit Fellegi, who was to the Hollywood swimsuit what Edith Head was to every other Hollywood film garment. It was a cunningly American ideal—sexy without being smarmy, a pin-up excused by the sun-drenched healthy lifestyle of California and linked to another persuasive product, the movies.
In the trio of great American swimwear manufacturers, Cole went to Hollywood while Jantzen emphasized family fun and healthy sport, and Catalina became associated with beauty pageants. More than any other American company, Cole connected fashion and swimwear. Fred Cole reshaped the wool knit swimsuit to define the bust and waist and introduced a sunny California palette of colors. With the popularity of tans in the 1930s, Cole progressively sheared away the bulk of the traditional swimsuit to provide more and more exposure.
Fellegi, the Hollywood costumer, began working with Cole in 1936 and, immediately utilizing rubberized and stretch possibilities of new fibers that could surpass the old wool knits, brought a body-clinging science to the sex appeal that Cole desired. When rubber was restricted in World War II, Cole created the "swoon suit," a two-piece suit that laced up the sides of the trunk and tied for the bra, still an enduring pin-up. After the war, Cole and Fellegi pursued fashion and Hollywood glamor with New Look-inspired dressmaker swimsuits and profligate details of sequins, gold-lamé jersey, and water-resistant velvets.
In 1950 Cole signed film/swimming star Esther Williams to a merchandising-design contract that created and promoted the most popular and glamorous swimwear of its time. In 1955, with the phenomenal success of Esther Williams secured in her film aquacades and romances, Cole entered into agreement to produce swimwear for Christian Dior, thus bringing the most famous fashion name of the moment to swimwear design. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Cole produced a variety of lines addressed to the increasingly segmented (principally by age and body type) swimwear market. In the early 1980s, Anne Cole, daughter of founder Fred, began designing her own line of swimsuits.
The Anne Cole Collection sustained the designer swimwear ideal; the swimsuits were beautiful, feminine, and quietly sensual. Anne Cole's sensibility was traditional elegance, and her swimsuits often recalled the 1930s beach scene as well the most elegant sportswear of Patou. Yet while Cole of California's swimwear lines thrived, the company itself endured a succession of corporate parents. Kayser-Roth was bought by Gulf & Western, then sold to the Wickes group of companies, which in turn sold the firm to Taren Holdings, Inc. In 1993, Cole of California, the Anne Cole Collection, and fellow swimwear producer Catalina were all rescued from bankruptcy and acquired by Authentic Fitness Corporation, a subsidiary of Warnaco.
The swimwear division of Authentic Fitness proved a snug fit for Cole of California, which was paired with Catalina to create the Catalina Cole unit. In addition to Catalina Cole and Anne Cole, Speedo and Oscar de la Renta made up the Authentic Fitness swimwear division. While many swimwear producers had poor results in 1995, Catalina Cole and Anne Cole both experienced record growth and profits. Two years later, Anne Cole introduced the "tankini," an instant hit and the must-have swimsuit of the season and beyond.
In the 21st century, almost 70 years after its formation, the Cole name has come to represent both Catalina Cole and Anne Cole. While each prospered under the ownership of Authentic Fitness, their future was once again in peril when ultimate parent Warnaco Group filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001. The quest, however, of Cole swimwear will not change—these suits were never merely for the water, but to not only be on the crest of the wave but to define and enhance bathing beauty.
updated by NellyRhodes