Swimsuit Competitions and Beauty Pageants Made for Each Other

Swimsuit competitionsSwimsuit competitions have long been part of beauty pageants like Miss America and Miss Universe. They are the subject of both controversy and praise. Those who are against them claim this portion of the pageant demeans women. Those who are in favor offer reasons ranging from wishing they had a figure like the contestants to just enjoying the show.

How did the swimsuit become such a staple of these pageants? The answer goes back to 1907 when Bentz Knitting Mills was founded as an underwear and sweater manufacturer. The Australian professional swimmer, Annette Kellerman, had been in favor of women having the right to wear one-piece bathing suits instead of the dress and pantaloons that were common during the early 1900s. She wore her one-piece suit in 1907 at Revere Beach, Massachusetts, and was arrested for indecency.

First one-piece swimsuit
Annette Kellerman and her one-piece swimsuit

Her one-piece swimsuit was so popular that she developed her own line of swimwear for women. Her suits were known as the “Annette Kellermans” and were considered the first step in the advancement toward modern swimwear. Women admired her figure and she later wrote a health and fitness book in 1917, The Body Beautiful.

Dr. Dudley A. Sargent, a leading Harvard University pioneer in the field of physical education, conducted a survey of 10,000 women to determine the most perfect figure. Annette Kellerman was the survey winner because her proportions most closely resembled the Venus de Milo. The New York Times published an article about Dr. Sargent, and his recent survey, Dec. 4, 1910. The article was titled Modern Woman Getting Nearer the Perfect Figure.

The Bentz Knitting Mills changed its name in 1912 to Pacific Knitting Mills and launched it’s first collection of swimwear. By the 1920s, Hollywood stars, heads of movie studios, and big business tycoons were flocking to Catalina, an island 22 miles from Los Angeles. The all-night parties and dances in the Avalon ballroom captured the carefree lifestyle. Pacific Knitting capitalized on that in 1928 by changing its name to Catalina Knitting Mills.

Catalina swimsuits were modeled by leading ladies of Hollywood like Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. Famed costume designer of Warner Brothers, Orry Kelly, designed some of the swimsuits. The fashion industry and motion picture industry were inseparable and consumers loved it.

Vintage two-piece swimsuit
Early two-piece swimsuit

During World War II, items that had been in abundance were in short supply. Rations were the order of the day so Catalina swimsuits went from one piece to two pieces. The soldiers liked the new look. Catalina began sponsoring the Miss America pageant during the 1940s.

The swimsuit competition evolved out of physical fitness and Hollywood glamour. Beauty pageants and swimsuits have been made for each other since they first teamed up in the 1940s.

By: Cynthia Collins


Catalina swimwear history

Annette Kellerman biography

Annette Kellerman book ad

New York Times 1910 article

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