Art & antiques by Dr. Lori: Vintage swimsuits on the market

I was one of those little kids who often were called “a fish.” You know the type – a pint sized three or four year old who could swim like a champ and would rather spend all day playing underwater in a swimming pool than doing anything else. My mom nearly drowned as a teenager and, while she never learned to swim herself, she was adamant about giving me and my sisters swimming lessons. To her credit, all three of us are excellent swimmers today.

My swimming abilities even helped me pay for school. I swam competitively through my teens and early ’20s and today, I enjoy swimming as my favorite form of exercise.

It follows that investigating the history of the bathing suit is a topic of interest for me. It brings back happy memories of days at swim team practice and now relates to my work evaluating vintage objects.

In the early years of the 20th century, there were strict laws that required women to be fully clothed when taking a swim. The bathing suit requirements of the day included a non-form fitting costume that consisted of a dress, pantaloons, cap and shoes. Most women obliged and frolicked in the waves in full length swimming attire while others took their chances with a more revealing bathing suit. Most woolen – yes, that reads woolen as in wool – swimsuits of the early decades of the 1900s were basic black.

All of that changed in the summer of 1905 when Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman announced her desire to become the first woman to swim the English Channel.

She attempted the feat amid controversy over her bathing suit. Kellerman sparked an international stir when she was arrested for wearing a one-piece woolen swimming suit.

She omitted the pantaloons, cap, and shoes and started a tidal wave of talk. Obscenity laws aside, Kellerman started a swimsuit revolution.

Roaring Twenties

By the 1920s and 30s, bright colors, synthetic fabrics and a more feminine shape emerged in the style of swimsuits. The famous Jantzen swim suit manufacturing firm made the diving girl logo a beach blanket image and everything from billboards to bumper stickers donned the famous logo. In the 1940s, convertible straps, which could be unfastened, were introduced in part to prevent tan lines. Today, vintage swim suits bring high values on the vintage couture market.

High-end swim suits from the 1950s like those designed by Christian Dior command $1,000 to $2,000 while more mainstream brands like Catalina dating to the mid 1900s are worth $50 to $350 per suit. The 1950s emphasized the hourglass figure with a “bubble suit,” featuring cotton material and low cut top. The 1960s swimsuits saw an interest in showing off the mid-drift, too. Two piece polyester bathing suits of the era were still conservative and covered up one’s belly button.

By the 1970s, swim suits were a far cry from the cover-up-everything style bathing suits of the early 1960s. Later, Speedo swimsuits from the 1980s featured Lycra materials and straightforward styles. American designer suits

On the market, vintage swim suits in good condition always bring interest from collectors and celebrity suits are all the rage. A prominent example of the interest in the vintage swim suit market is celebrity suits. For instance, Pamela Anderson’s one piece red Speedo lifeguard bathing suit from her starring role on the widely popular hit TV show, Bay Watch, recently sold for $275.

Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, and award-winning TV personality, Dr. Lori presents appraisal events to audiences worldwide.

Dr. Lori is the expert appraiser on Discovery channel’s “Auction Kings.”

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