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Reid, Rose Marie (1906–1978)

Reid, Rose Marie (1906–1978)

Swimsuit designer and businesswoman whose innovative styling put her at the top of the swimwear industry. Born Rose Marie Yancey on September 12, 1906, in Cardston, Alberta, Canada; died on December 19, 1978, in Provo, Utah; daughter of Marie Hyde Yancey (a designer and seamstress) and William Elvie Yancey (a Church of Latter-day Saints bishop and grocer); married Garreth Rhynhart (divorced summer 1935); married Jack C. Reid (a swimming pool manager and instructor), on November 30, 1935 (divorced April 10, 1946); children: (second marriage) Bruce (b. January 19, 1937); Sharon Reid Alden (b. October 2, 1938); Carole Reid Burr (b. July 18, 1940).

Relocated with family to Weiser, Idaho (1916); after graduation from high school, worked in family grocery and beauty businesses; after marriage, designed a swim suit that led to orders from a Vancouver department store and launched Holiday Togs, Ltd.; total involvement, creative and managerial, led to company's name change to Rose Marie Reid; business sales topped $1 million a year for the first time (1946); entered into partnership with Jack Kessler and relocated in California (1947–49); Rose Marie Reid became the leading fashion house and manufacturer of the swimsuit industry (1950s); named one of the top ten women in America by the Los Angeles Times (1955); co-winner of the American Sportswear Design Award for the "Sporting Look of the Year" sponsored by Sports Illustrated (1958); company sales reached $18.4 million, almost 10% of women's bathing suit sales in the nation (1960); refusing to design bikinis, left the company (1960); sold the rights to her name (1964); shifted to the design and manufacture of synthetic-fiber wigs for women; moved to Provo, Utah, to be with her family; continued civic service involvement, especially as a speaker at university and business meetings, and remained active in the Mormon Church.

Rose Marie Reid learned sewing and design at her mother's knee. The scraps of material left over from Marie Yancey 's work as a seamstress became outfits for the little girl's dolls, right down to their umbrellas. By the time Reid was a teenager, she had absorbed the intricacies of cutting patterns, sewing, constructing and fitting, as well as Marie's axiom: "What makes a designer is when one cannot stand anything as it is…. You can always see something that you can do to make it lovelier, more unique, or a fit better." By then, Reid was reconstructing and restyling clothes for herself and her friends.

Born in 1906, the middle child of seven, Rose Marie Yancey was named after her mother and a great aunt, Rose Hyde . The family lived in Cardston, Alberta, Canada, a border community of homesteaders living the hardscrabble existence of short growing seasons, frigid winters, and hostile winds sweeping unhindered for hundreds of miles across the prairie. But the land was made beautiful by wild geese, mountain grouse, deer, elk, and waving fields of grass and grain. There was not a fence for 2,000 miles.

Reid's father Elvie Yancey supplemented the farm's income with carpentry while Marie sewed. The children grew up earning money by doing odd jobs around town. Reid, who wore her hair in golden curls, was a bright student who loved to read. At age eight, considered the age of accountability, she was baptized into the Mormon Church.

Rose Marie was ten in 1916, when the Yanceys moved to Weiser, Idaho, to another farm. The children earned money as fruit packers for other farmers, or worked their own fields, where their father would divert them from the effort with math games and spelling contests. Later, handling the details of business, Reid recalled the exacting use of memory she developed from this quizzing. In the evenings, the children practiced penmanship while listening to their father, a bishop of the Mormon Church, read the scriptures. Marie taught her children to sing trios and duets, while Aunt Rose accompanied them on the piano.

After ten years of toiling on the Weiser farm, Elvie went into the grocery business, and the family at last found success in their combined efforts. The farm years had meanwhile taught Marie another business lesson. In a letter to her sister, she wrote: "If there is a loss to be taken, take it quickly, and go on to other operations that can be profitable." In 1925, the Weiser newspaper reported the purchase by the Yancey family of a combined millinery and ready-to-wear store, offering a "new hemstitching service" and a beauty parlor. Reid went to Boise to learn the beauty salon trade, then alternated with her sister Marion Heilner in traveling to the small town of Baker City, Oregon, where the family opened up a second beauty salon business. All these enterprises were wiped out during the Depression by the failure of the local bank.

In the summer of 1935, Rose Marie was living in Vancouver, British Columbia, when her marriage to Garreth Rhynhart, an artist-friend of her brother's, ended in divorce. That November, she married Jack C. Reid, a swimming instructor and manager of a pool. When Jack wanted something to replace the woolly trunks that sagged loosely after only a few minutes in the water, Rose Marie selected non-absorbing fabric of closely-woven duck cloth, and put lacing in the sides for a snugger fit. Swimmers at the pool started to ask where they could get such suits for themselves, and Jack was the first to see the opportunity. With two sample suits, one for men and one for women, created by Rose Marie, they approached the local department store of a national chain. When the buyers gave them an order for ten dozen men's suits and six dozen women's, Reid's Holiday Togs, Ltd., was born.

Reid created six styles of bathing suits and arranged with 16 seamstresses, new owners of Singer sewing machines, to fill the order. After a gross profit of $10,000 in its first year, Holiday Togs moved into a rented factory, where 32 machines turned out Reid's next designs. She would eventually style more than 100 suits per season. By November 1938, a Vancouver newspaper was reporting the return of Rose Marie Reid from a business trip to Baltimore, Maryland: "With the United States tucked in her pocket … the Reid 'Skintite' will be seen in the future at all America's smartest beaches." Reid was quoted as saying that 3,000 suits had been shipped to Australia the previous week. But duties levied by U.S. Customs made Reid's suits twice as expensive as comparable lines in the States, causing the entrepreneur to begin thinking about establishing an American manufacturing base.

Preferring to design on live models, Reid put an emphasis on an improved fit, a concept previously unknown in the swimwear field. As she introduced tummy-tuck panels, stay-down legs, and inside brassieres, women's swimsuits became a hot fashion item for the first time. In 1937, the name of her suits appeared on swimmers in the British Empire Games in Australia. Operating on the assumption that "a woman should feel as lovely in a swimsuit as she does in an evening gown," Reid experimented with new fabrics and diversified the market, designing "mother-and-daughter" suits as well as for men and boys, covering all ages. She designed for the bodies of all women, and was the first to provide suits according to women's dress sizes. Her sales jumped from $30,000 to $300,000 in one year.

Bruce, the first of the Reid children, was born in 1937, as the business was just getting under way. Admitted to the hospital, Reid was still cutting out fabric on her hospital bed while preparing for delivery. Her daughters Sharon and Carole were born in 1938 and 1940, respectively. To help with the raising of the children, Marie Yancey, now widowed, came to live with the family. In a new, competitive business, Reid often worked 16 hour days, but kept close to her children by involving them in her work. When she brought the infant Sharon with her on business to New York, newspapers announced that she was the youngest child to ever fly across the country. When Reid designed children's swimwear, her own children modeled them for local Canadian businesses. The year totem poles were appliquéd to one style of Reid's suits, Carole was delegated to cut them out. When the children were older and worked as hired employees, Reid held them to high performance standards, so they would not be seen as taking advantage of family ties.

With both her employees and her outside buyers, Reid's own enthusiasm for her work was contagious. Charismatic in her business contacts, she developed marketing techniques that buyers and trade representatives knew would be profitable, and they gave her suits top priority. Experimenting with new fabrics and trims, she introduced the use of gabardine and cotton, and applied sequins in ways the public immediately found appealing. She also developed a rapport with bankers, which helped the company's expansion. Her total immersion in the business justified the shift in the company's name from Holiday Togs to Rose Marie Reid, which was emblazoned across on the wall of the Vancouver factory. In 1944, with World War II still under way, employment in the company was up to 190, and Rose Marie Reid designs were in more than 500 Canadian retail stores; by 1946, the company controlled more than 50% of the Canadian swimsuit business, and annual sales had grown from $32,000 in 1938 to $834,000 that year; in 1947, they reached $1 million.

In 1946, Rose Marie and Jack were divorced. By the following year, she was intent on transferring the business to the United States. In search of an American business partner, she approached Jack Kessler, a clothing salesman, and his wife Nina Kessler , in Seattle, Washington. In both Canada and the U.S., however, World War II had been over less than two years; the manufacturing sectors were retooling for peacetime and beset by shortages. With both machinery and materials of the kind Reid needed in short supply, Kessler followed the advice of his financial advisor, who assumed it would be impossible for Reid to succeed, by setting standards for their equal financial partnership that required the designer to acquire all the sewing machines, fabric, and employees to set up the company.

Reid put in an order with the Singer company for the sewing machines she needed. With her name on a waiting list, she turned up at the Singer factory in Winnipeg and announced that she was there to pick up her purchase. When the distributor was not encouraging, Reid replied that she knew the machines were there and she would wait. Within hours, an order of machines arrived at the factory—the exact number to fill Reid's order, returned by a company that had been forced to close. Because she was there, the distributor agreed to turn them over to her. Said Nina Kessler: "[Reid] was the most organized, unorganized person I knew … and she was absolutely fearless…. She did what had to be done immediately no matter what anybody thought." Anticipating how the suits would be received, Nina prophesied, "We won't be able to make them fast enough."

The first American manufacturing plant was set up in downtown Los Angeles (the leisurewear capital of the country), 30 miles from the airport, giving access to easy shipping. On an early buying trip to New York, Reid was in the office of a fabric company executive when she noticed a roll of gold metal thread on his desk. Asking for a piece, she took it back to her hotel room, where she tested it by dipping it in salt water. When she saw that it did not tarnish, she bought 20 yards of the thread in silver and 20 yards in gold, located a weaver and swore him to secrecy. Days later, the thread had been turned into shiny metallic gold and silver fabric, the first of its kind, and Reid set off with the yardage for Los Angeles to begin fitting it onto a model for her new swimsuit line. On September 20, 1946, before 300 national buyers and the press in Los Angeles, Rose Marie Reid, Inc., of California, made its company debut with three showings. At the finale of each show, the metallic gold suit was unveiled, at the unheard-of price of $90.

The show was a sensation. Buyers flocked to the company with their orders for the gold suit—so many that the limits of available cloth forced Reid to turn down three out of four. Trade magazines focused on the gold suit; it was featured by Apparel Week and newspapers throughout the country. Overnight, the Rose Marie Reid brand was famous. The company had opened in the U.S. hoping to achieve sales of more than $500,000 in its first year; thanks to the metallic gold suit, that goal was far exceeded. Manufacturers were soon copying Reid's suits, said one of her major rivals, and those who didn't "went out of business."

Reid bought an estate in the suburb of Brentwood complete with swimming pool, riding stables and garden. She brought the children down from Vancouver, along with Marie and her Aunt Florence, and treated some of her new neighbors to personally designed and fitted swimsuits. She also welcomed use of the house by clubs and civic groups, and for fund-raising events, wedding receptions and activities of the Mormon Church. One day, when Reid was having lunch in the Brentwood village with her accountant, they overheard town officials discussing their lack of funds for repaving the village's roads. Reid promptly volunteered to donate the money. She was dubbed the "village financial angel" by the local newspaper and made honorary mayor. Popular as a speaker, Reid also addressed civic and service clubs, as well as university business schools. She spoke about leadership, the future of women in business, and the necessity of hard work for business success; she herself had been following an exhausting schedule for years.

According to Reid, "nothing is so brutally frank as the bare essentials of a bathing suit." She concentrated on construction and fit, and her early "skintite" suit, with its inch of fabric around the back and up over the shoulder that snapped into place, was revolutionary in holding the suit snugly through any activity on the beach. "Imagineering" was the name she gave to her shaping of suits to accommodate women of all ages and figures. Dividing the female torso into six areas, she created camouflaging devices to minimize imperfections in each, including a "bodice bra," vertical stripes, tummy-control panels, brief skirts and shirrings.

In her designs, Reid continued to experiment, bringing bengaline, satin brocade and velvets into the swimwear field. She used a new synthetic material, plastylon, which combined the characteristics of plastic and nylon for a tidy fit. She employed fashionable and innovative braids and appliqués as trim. One famous style involved a red lobster on a white suit; another had a fish decorated with small sparkling mirrors; and Carole's totem poles were a big hit in Canada. Special fabrics were used such as whites with thin gold metallic stripes, white-and-gold diamond-patterned mattelasse, and stripes of silver and candy pink that suggested a ball gown. She employed a fabric patented as Zelan, a colorfast and lightweight cotton or satin that was body-fitting, unstretchable, and cut to hold its shape. In 1951, Esquire featured a Rose Marie Reid design that employed 24-carat gold plating on black-lace fabric, sold exclusively at Lord & Taylor in New York City as the "suit of the year." Life's choice that year as the most outstanding and revolutionary suit was the "Hourglass," with its squeezed-in waist and accented hips made more alluring in a satin-latex fabric. When Lord & Taylor featured Rose Marie Reid suits as "Jewels of the Sea" in its Fifth Avenue windows, its competitor, Saks Fifth Avenue, called the company to order "1,000 of whatever you have and 500 more for Palm Beach" to be sent "at once." By 1952, two plants, one in Montreal and one in Los Angeles, were turning out 1,000 Rose Marie Reid suits a day, and sales had soared to $5 million.

As late as January 1949, the fashion editor of the Vancouver Daily Province still referred to Reid as "Vancouver's famous swimsuit maker." For several years, after purchasing her former husband's portion of the company, Reid ran the U.S. and Canadian operations concurrently. As she coped with the company's growing pains in California, however, it eventually proved too much to carry on the designing responsibilities for the Canadian branch as well. On October 20, 1952, the Canadian firm announced the closing of its doors, while Reid's fashions in the U.S. proceeded apace.

The spinoff of the "Hourglass" was the "doubloon" shape, featuring colorfast elasticized taffeta and bengaline. In 1954, Reid created "bloomer bottoms," a suit featuring delicate embroidery that accented the bustline; a widening of the suit just under the arms created an optical illusion, narrowing the waist, while pockets widened the hips. Maintaining her belief in the shaping of her suits to enhance a woman's body as the means to business mastery, she continued to design for "modesty and a little mystery." Throughout the 1950s, she essentially held off the invasion of the European bikini—with its minimum of material and no figure control at all—into the American market. In the late 1950s, her designs triggered another leap in sales with the introduction of bathing-suit knits. Reid was the leader in her field for almost two full decades.

In 1955, Reid was named one the top ten women in America by the Los Angeles Times. In June 1958, in featuring the Rose Marie Reid look, the Dallas Times-Herald suggested that it had become a catalyst in expanding the role of a woman's swimwear, so that "instead of a single suit, she has a wardrobe, and each suit is part of a costume." The previous month, on May 28, 1958, Reid had been co-winner, along with designer Bonnie Cashin , of the Sportswear Design Award sponsored by Sports Illustrated for "Sporting Look of the Year."

In the 1950s, the Rose Marie Reid factory in Los Angeles produced 5,000 bathing suits a day, with overtime on occasion doubling that number to meet orders during peak season. After Reid began adding small collections of new swimsuit styles in late summer and at Christmas time, when stores formerly had been sold out of swimwear, the practice became industrywide. Meeting the demands of marketing her suits in 45 countries, Reid continued to refuse to design bikinis, offended by their skimpiness on grounds of both modesty and aesthetics. As the pressure intensified for her to adapt her to these styles, she reassessed her position, and decided instead to get out of the swimwear business. She had received all the recognition her field could bring and was now an extremely rich woman. In 1960, Reid retired from the swimsuit industry and turned to the design and manufacture of synthetic wigs, with a new corporation called the Reid-Meredith Company. Her swimsuit company, unable to maintain its competitive edge, closed its plant within two years. In 1964, she sold the right to the trademark name of Rose Marie Reid to the Jonathan Logan Company, and it is still associated internationally with swimwear.

As a pacesetter in the world of fashion, Reid believed youth gave her credibility, and she worked to maintain an energetic appearance. She also hated for anyone to know her true age. She once wrote to her sister Marion Heilner to say that if Marion did not also start fibbing about her age, Rose Marie was going to become her younger rather than her older sister. Refusing to admit she was older than 32, she smudged her birth date on her driver's license and passport. On December 19, 1978, Reid died at the home of her daughter in Provo, Utah. A hybrid rose, dawn-pink in color, was named for Rose Marie Reid. There is no birth date on her gravestone.

sources:

Alden, Sharon Reid. Two interviews by William G. Hartley, Provo, Utah, 1973 (typescript, Oral History Program Archives, Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah).

Burr, Carol Reid, and Roger Petersen. Rose Marie Reid: An Extraordinary Life Story. American Fork, UT: Covenant, 1995.

"Introducing Workers to Product," in Business Week. November 20, 1954.

Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. Dictionary of American Biography. Scribner, 1995.

Lencck, Lena, and Gideon Bosker. Making Waves, 1989.

Lothrop, Gloria Ricci. "A Trio of Mermaids—Their Impact upon the Southern California Sportswear Industry," in Journal of the West. January 1966.

Obituaries in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both December 22, 1978) and Deseret News (December 21, 1978).

Reid, Rose Marie. Interview by William G. Hartley, Provo, Utah, 1973 (typescript, Oral History Program Archives, Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah).

Sports Illustrated. June 9, 1958.

"Styling Buoys Swim Suit Maker," in The New York Times. October 8, 1960.

"Swimsuits Around the Calendar," in Fortune. February 1956.

"Well Suited by the West," in Sports Illustrated. November 28, 1955.

Harriet Horne Arrington , freelance biographer, Salt Lake City, Utah

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