Jantzen centenary, from Americana Classic Vintage
Though my swimming has earned me a goodly fortune I am still looking for my chest of gold in a cool dripping sea cave, though a professional mermaid for the movies, I still wait to see my first real one sitting on a damp grey rock combing her long green hair. - Annette Kellerman
Due to the 7 years I spent working as the Buyer for vintage clothing chain Beyond Retro I have amassed what some might consider to be a reasonably extensive wardrobe. Because of the proliferation of clothes in my bedroom (necessitating a custom-made bed to store them all under), it often occurs that in the search to find an outfit each day I stumble across a forgotten gem languishing at the back of my wardrobe/bed. Such was the case recently when I pulled out one of my favourite possessions, a 1920s Jantzen swimsuit. I’ve always had an interest in coastal fashion; Victorian swimwear was the focus of my MA dissertation, and growing up by the sea (not to mention my Piscean nature) has ensured that both nauticalia and the seaside resort have always been high on my list of interests.
Narrowly avoiding a nipple slip a few years ago in my Jantzen swim suit. Picture by Luka Marchant
I’m particularly enamoured with Jantzen swimwear as its like owning a piece of social history. The story of the company reflects not only changing attitudes to modesty and public display, but also the increasing importance of branding throughout the 20th century. The history of the Jantzen company has been well documented, from its beginnings as a knitting company in Portland, Oregon in 1910 to the move into swimwear and the savvy marketing which catapulted the company to global fame. The one-piece model that I own started out as a suit for a rowing team, but the comfort and fit ensured movement through water was infinitely easier than with Victorian two-pieces, and in 1915 the one-piece was produced specifically for plunging into watery depths. Jantzen actively promoted the physicality of swimming, and from the early 20s they began using the tagline ‘The Suit That Changed Bathing to Swimming’, complete with the Red Diving Girl logo which appeared at the same time.
The label from my swimsuit; 1925 advert found at American Art Archives. Matching stockings and bobble hat completed the ensemble from the early 1920s.
Designed by Florenz and Frank Clark (who sketched divers practicing for the 1920 Olympics for reference), the iconic logo first appeared on Jantzen swimsuits in 1923 and in just 9 short years it allegedly became the best known trademark in the world. According to the Jantzen site, the bobble hat and stockings were dropped from the logo in 1928, which suggests my suit can be dated to somewhere in the 5 year period between 1923 and 1928. Chanel’s costumes for the Ballets Russes production of ‘Le Train bleu’ in 1924 resemble the same style of swimwear that features a short skirt for modesty. (Read more about Florenz and Frank Clark at GlamourSplash.)
Jantzen ads always situate the product within the realm of fashion. From the 20s, found here, the 1931 ‘Shouldaire’ found at the Painted Woman, and from 1955 found here
The marketing of Jantzen is one of the great success stories of the first half of the 20th century. Always keen to position itself as a fashionable – as well as practical – product, a national campaign after WWI saw illustrated advertisements appearing in Vogue and Life as well as on billboards throughout San Francisco and Los Angeles. They were also market leaders when it came to celebrity endorsement, from the 1924 Olympics in Paris where both gold (Johnny Weismuller) and silver (Duke Kahanamoku) 100 metre swimming medallists wore Jantzen, to their catalogues of the 30s that revelled in Hollywood’s new fashionable faces, using stars such as Joan Blondell, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers to advertise their wares.
Always keen to move with the times, Jantzen were quick to associate themselves with other expanding consumer areas. They soon became synonymous with the rising popularity of motoring through their car ornaments and windshield stickers that Jantzen dealers gave away for free. In 1931 the ‘Shouldaire’ encouraged strap-free tanning, feeding into the outdoor fads of the 30s and the suntanned skin supposedly popularised by Coco Chanel at the Riviera. In the 40s Jantzen added active sportswear to their remit, as well as military items ranging from gas masks to sleeping bags. In the 50s, with the rise of commercial jet planes and the ensuing leisure time spent at exotic destinations, Jantzen created an ‘International Set’ range for the travel-savvy customer. And in the 60s, their campaign ‘Just Wear a Smile and a Jantzen’ led to a plethora of ‘Smile Contests’ across the States, pulling in big name sponsors such as Ford, Kodak and United Airlines.
Jantzen Beach found at Portland History
Never a company to shy away from a total and immersive brand experience, Jantzen Beach opened in May 1928 on Hayden Island in Portland, Oregon. Named after Carl Jantzen of Jantzen fame (he was one of the amusement park’s investors), there was perhaps unsurprisingly a strong emphasis on swimming and the site, dubbed the ‘Coney Island of the West,’ boasted four outdoor swimming pools and a natatorium alongside a fun house, Golden Canopy Ballroom, Big Dipper roller coaster and acres of picnic grounds. Despite huge popularity, especially throughout the 40s, Jantzen Beach unfortunately closed its doors in 1970 and is now a shopping mall.
The most amazing Jantzen swimsuit I’ve ever come across can be seen at Vintage Traveler, and you can read some great insights into the history of women’s swimwear through the ages at Thread for Thought. If you’re interested in dating your Jantzen swimsuit or the evolution of the Diving Girl logo you can check out the label resource at the Vintage Fashion Guild.
There have long been associations of impropriety that accompany swimming at the beach; the proximity to other bodies that bathing allowed infused the seaside with a reputation for salacious behaviour. Before Jantzen came along there was growing concern throughout the 19th century that the wet, partially clothed bodies of bathers encouraged ‘deviant’ (read: unwed) sexualities to roam free, which culminated in the unwieldy contraption of the bathing machine which epitomised the Victorian obsession with modesty. Clothes clung suggestively to the bodies of bathers, and loose hair signified even looser morals as summed up in the above Punch cartoon. An early proponent of the one-piece swimsuit (such as my Jantzen suit) was professional swimmer, vaudevillian and film star Annette Kellerman. Kellerman was to water what Amelia Earhart was to the air: a pioneer who used her position to advocate women’s rights, in Kellerman’s case concerning control over the way women chose to cover their bodies in public, especially where professional athleticism was concerned. Born in Sydney, Kellerman initially took up swimming to overcome childhood paralysis. By 1902 at the age of 15 she was winning titles and began performing a mermaid act swimming with fish at the Melbourne Exhibition Aquarium. She was soon touring the world, amazing crowds by swimming the Thames, attempting to swim the English Channel and performing the first water ballet in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome (for which she is regularly credited as the inventor of synchronised swimming).
Annette Kellerman: Professional Mermaid. She was immortalised by the later swimming star Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
Kellerman railed against the prevailing modesty restrictions in swimwear from a young age, lambasting the impractical nature of the bathing dress and hose. This culminated in her arrest in 1907 on a charge of indecent exposure on a beach in Massachusetts as her one-piece, thigh-high swimsuit was deemed far too revealing. Kellerman’s argument that she needed to be free from cumbersome swimwear in order to achieve unrestricted movement was accepted by the judge and the case was dismissed. The ensuing popularity of her one-piece (that highlighted every curve of her body) eventually led to her own line of swimwear, and the acceptance of the style left companies like Jantzen free to pick up the mantle.
Annette Kellerman in her infamous one-piece all over black diving suit found at The Story of Swimwear, and here
The relaxation of dress codes at the beach, in part triggered by Kellerman, unsurprisingly led to a rise in circulation of saucy postcards and bathing belle pin-ups. Hollywood was quick to endorse the idea(l) of bathing beauties, having both the climate, desire and technology to produce and disseminate images of scantily clad women in the name of entertainment. Mack Sennett was something of the Grandaddy of the seaside pin-up; he set up the Sennett Bathing Beauties as a promotional tool in 1915, using them in comedy shorts as well as at events like beauty contests to publicise his studio output. They continued until 1928, and launched the career of many a fledgling starlet, from Carole Lombard to Marie Prevost.
Mack Sennett bathing beauties found at Verdoux
No stranger to controversy, shortly after her court case Kellerman was also snapped up by Hollywood and in 1916 became the first major film star to appear in a nude scene. Aquatic adventure was the order of the day for the majority of her films, and her title of professional mermaid was set in movies such as The Mermaid (1911) through to Venus of the South Seas (1924) – the only complete Kellerman feature to exist after its recent restoration by the Library of Congress (click here to see clips). Kellerman returned to live in her native Australia before she died, and the Annette Kellerman costume collection can now be found at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, which includes a signature diving outfit as well as a mermaid costume.
Spanish Vogue, March 2012. Photography by Greg Kadel, found at Studded Hearts
Annette Kellerman is particularly relevant this summer as the mermaid is getting a style makeover. An underwater element ran through many collections for Spring/Summer 2012, from Givenchy where Riccardo Tisci used aquatic eel skin, shark and stingray instead of land-dwelling leather, teamed with shark tooth heels, to Alexander McQueen where Sarah Burton offered a poetic take on marine inspiration, claiming Gaia as a reference for the “sense of all-encompassing oceanic life that infused the clothes” (style.com). Patterns were drawn from oysters, barnacles and pirate’s buried treasure, and ruffles gave the effect of jellyfish floating through the sea and the rolling of the surf. Lauren Laverne’s most recent style column in The Observer was awash with scaly tails, and Katy Perry has even been getting in on the mermaid action. Jantzen themselves were no strangers to the power of the mermaid, using it as a trope in much of their advertising throughout the 40s and 50s.
Selling the Siren: Jantzen advertisements, black and white image found here
Mermaids exist in centuries-old stories from all around the globe from China to Arabian Nights and the Ramayana, and as folkloric characters from the Sirens of Greek mythology to the Ningyo of Japan, the Rusalka of Slavic mythology, the Jengu of Cameroon and the Mami Wata of parts of Africa, the Caribbean and South America. The form and nature varies somewhat between cultures, ranging from demi-gods to omens of bad luck or evil enchantresses. In Europe, it’s from Denmark that we get our lasting mermaid legacy in the form of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Little Mermaid (1836). It’s not difficult to see why every now and again mermaids grace catwalks and fashion spreads. The heady blend of legend, seduction and sensuality has fueled fashion fantasies for decades, casting its salty spell and enchanting customers with its scaly oceanic sparkle.
Cheri Herouard illustrations for La Vie Parisienne found here
Vogue‘s underwater love: Shona Heath’s Zodiac – Aquarius, Vogue (UK) December 2010 found at Harem of Peacocks; August 1940 Vogue found here; Shona Heath’s Zodiac – Cancer, Vogue (UK) December 2010 found at Harem of Peacocks
The desire for mermaids to exist has been around since antiquity. The idea of a lost Atlantis or marine paradise has persisted throughout history: ‘mermaids’ (more likely manatees) were spotted on Columbus’s voyages, and a reward of $1 million has been in place since 2009 for anyone who can prove the existence of mermaids off the coast of Kiryat Yam in Israel. It’s also due to the taxidermied fakery of the Feejee Mermaid that the circus impresario PT Barnum largely owes his fortune. Although he wasn’t the first to display a creature of this kind (a half monkey/half fish hybrid was first put on show at the Turf Coffee House in London in 1822 to huge crowds), it was Barnum’s knack for showmanship that turned the fake into a phenomenon. Before he co-founded circuses PT Barnum carved a living by exhibiting curiosities, through travelling ‘Scientific and Musical Theatres’ and later in his American Museum that also housed the first public aquarium in the States. In 1842, a year after the museum opened, the Feejee Mermaid was displayed for the first time. In typical Barnum fashion he first planted stories in the press and proceeded to arrange a ‘secret’ show of the mermaid that, unsurprisingly, sold out. When it was subsequently admitted to his American Museum it tripled the museum’s attendance in the first month and Barnum became a household name.
Postcard of a Feejee Mermaid found at Laputan Logic
The iconography of the mermaid is so ingrained into contemporary life that a siren is even used as the logo for Starbucks (while the name comes from the first mate in Moby Dick), a company that has come to represent corporate America and globalisation but which was set up by a couple of teachers and a writer in Seattle. And celluloid mermaids are as nearly old as film itself, from the lost movies of Annette Kellerman to Esther Williams and the myth-mixing vampiric mermaids of Pirates of the Caribbean 3.
Highlights from Esther Williams, mermaid movie star
Fashion’s best mer
maidman: Zoolander (2001)
If you want a taste of the life aquatic but can’t afford haute prices, you could always visit the Coney Island Mermaid Parade and Ball where you’re encouraged to create your own underwater garb. Founded in 1983 by Coney Island USA (the not-for-profit arts organisation), the Mermaid Parade pays homage to Coney Island’s forgotten Mardi Gras which lasted from 1903 to 1954. Each year, a different celebrity King Neptune and Queen Mermaid rule over the proceedings, riding in the Parade and assisting in the opening of the ocean for the summer swimming season by tossing fruit into the Atlantic to appease the Sea Gods. In the past, David Byrne, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Queen Latifah, Harvey Keitel and David Johansen of the New York Dolls have enjoyed their moment in the saltwater spotlight. 2012 is the 30th anniversary of the Mermaid Parade, and if you don your aquatic apparel you can head to Coney Island on Saturday June 23rd to take part.
Nisha and I DJing at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade in 2008 with Meika of Another Man’s Treasure
Stay tuned for more underwater fashions featuring Fred Butler, Schiaparelli, Versace and Chanel coming to Theatre of Fashion soon…