Jantzen swimsuit Scarborough Collections

The iconic red diving girl on the Jantzen swimsuit.
The iconic red diving girl on the Jantzen swimsuit.

Written by Jeannie Swales

It’s hard for us now to grasp just how revolutionary a swimsuit designed for a heavily pregnant woman was in the 1950s.

The iconic diving girl logo was designed in 1920.

These days, women often work until days before their due date, and wear clothes designed to celebrate, not disguise, their growing tummy.

Things were very different in the middle of the last century. In 1952, America’s sweetheart, screwball comedienne Lucille Ball, embarked on the second series of the hugely popular comedy I Love Lucy. She was pregnant in real life, and the writers wrote her condition into the series, in an episode in which she tells her husband Ricky (played by real-life husband Desi Arnaz) that they’re expecting.

But they weren’t actually allowed to use the word ‘pregnant’ – even the episode’s title avoided the issue, using the French word instead: Lucy Is Enceinte.

All the more remarkable, then, that around the same time, American swimwear giants Jantzen were producing this beautifully tailored maternity swimsuit.

In black stretch aertex, it bears the iconic red diving girl logo which helped make Jantzen one of America’s most beloved clothes manufacturers.

Jantzen started life in 1910 in Portland, Oregon, as the Portland Knitting Company – a tiny retail store with a room above containing a few hand-knitting machines, founded by Carl Jantzen and John Zehntbauer.

The pair and their friends were members of the local rowing club, so spent a lot of their time in the water. John Zehntbauer was later to recall: “[We] decided that we would order a needle bed for our sweater machine that would be fine enough to knit a rib-stitch bathing suit in a weight that would be comfortable. [We] were constantly in the water those days, either in the YMCA swimming pool or in the river and we began to experiment for our own use on swimming suits made of this fine elastic fabric. We soon developed a suit which we found was the most excellent garment for swimming that we had ever seen.”

Dubbing their invention a ‘bathing suit’, they began to offer it for sale to both men and women, and before long the ‘Jantzen’ was America’s favourite swimsuit.

Early suits were made of 100 per cent pure virgin wool, and could be complemented by matching stockings and caps.

The iconic diving girl logo was designed in 1920, to begin with as what we would consider a rather demure version (although it was considered racy at the time) with a costume that finished mid-thigh, a tasseled cap, and stockings.

She appeared at first in advertisements and as decals on the windscreens of cars, then stitched onto the bathing suits from 1923. Over the years, the stockings and cap were dropped, and in the late 1940s, the suit became strapless, as in our pictured version. The whole design was modernised again in the 1980s; today, the diving girl is one of the longest-lived clothing logos.

It was also around 1920 that Jantzen began to promote swimming as a sport and exercise rather than as a leisure pursuit, with the tagline ‘The Suit That Changed Bathing to Swimming’.

A couple of years later, Jantzen began including celebrity endorsments in their advertising, including Olympic swimming champions Johnny Weissmuller, who later shot to stardom in the title role of the Tarzan movies, and Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku, who is also considered a seminal figure in the surfing world.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the history of swimwear, Scarborough Museums Trust Collections Assistant Julie Baxter is giving a talk entitled Seaside Swimwear at Scarborough Art Gallery at 7.30pm on Friday June 12. Tickets are £5, and can be booked in advance on 01723 374753.

You can also see examples of swimwear in the current exhibition at the Gallery, Seaside Snaps, which comprises vintage photographs from the Scarborough Collections, and runs until June 21.

The Gallery is open from 10am-5pm Tuesdays to Sundays, plus bank