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Let's Play! Why I miss vintage playsuits and swimwear ensembles

1951 Vogue magazine


Summer is just around the corner.  For a lot of women, that really just means putting away their coats, wool clothing and boots and bringing out cottons, shorts and sandals.  Some women live in warm places where that transition isn't as important and their wardrobes last year round. But early to mid 20th century American women spent quite a lot of time taking care of their clothing and thinking about and planning their wardrobes.



First, they would have to get out their hat boxes, the summer boxes being bigger than the ones they used for their winter and fall hats. Those summer saucer hats and big floppy straw hats were at times very wide and, at times, very high. Hats were integral to a mid century wardrobe and they were stored in beautiful department store boxes, leather cases, or boxes from the brand or designer themselves. (Makes you exhausted just to think about it right)? The handbags would also have to be changed - giant straw and canvas bags, as well as leather white bags would replace the darker leather and animal skin handbags from the Fall and Winter. The bags would be stored in the original cloth bags they came in or in handmade drawstring bags, or even pillowcases.  Then they bring out the rest of their summer accessories including a pair of sunglasses, summer gloves and scarves.


Horst P. Horst Cover 1939 Vogue Magazine


I'll admit that I'm pretty happy that I don't have to get out gloves for the summer, or wear a hat almost every day, and besides, we are all too busy to put all of our hats in boxes anyway, right? But, maybe our kind of "busy" is out of whack, and maybe those women were on to something. .There are some fashion sensibilities and traditions that I wish we would all agree bring back in style.  For example,I get a little sad when I go to the theater and people are in their workout clothes, or go out to a nice restaurant for dinner and different people are there, but still, you guessed it, in their workout clothes..  There is something to be said for getting dressed for different events and occasions. Changing our clothes between events can help us adapt to daily transitions, set a tone, encourage a change of direction, and sometimes even show respect to others. Most of us change our clothes to go to bed at night or to go on a job interview, why should going to public places like beaches and swimming pools be any different?


Lawson 1945 vintage swimsuit wrap skirt that goes over swimsuit
Lawson 1945 vintage swimsuit wrap skirt that goes over swimsuit


1950's pattern book for playsuits and beach ensembles.
1950's pattern book for playsuits and beach ensembles.

The fashion phenomenon I wish would come back this summer, is that of beach and/or pool ensembles.You are probably thinking that those types of frivolous garments were only owned by wealthy women, right? Or maybe women that were too focused on their appearances? Well, even women of very modest means had playsuits or some type of beach ensemble, even if they had to make them themselves. Most women knew that it was important to thoughtfully plan their wardrobes, yes, some were perhaps vain, some had to plan for exotic trips, but many were working within very tight budgets but still wanted to feel good going to the local pool or beach.  Since fast fashion as we know it today wasn't readily available (thank goodness) and women owned much less clothing than we do today, women were careful to buy or make what they needed. They also took care of the things they owned - like, hats being kept in hat boxes...sounds pretty sensible to me.


1940's vintage Vogue playsuit pattern
1940's vintage Vogue playsuit pattern


Tom Brigance designer vintage 1950's pattern for playsuits
Tom Brigance designer vintage 1950's pattern for playsuits


1956 LIFE magazine swimwear fashions

Imagine if, instead of throwing a giant old t-shirt over a bathing suit,  and putting a baseball cap over your unwashed hair, you wore a straw hat, stylish cover up or a pair of coordinating shorts or even a wrap skirt that would transform your swimsuit into an outfit? It wouldn't have to cost much more than what you buy already, it would just take about 20 minutes more, at most, to plan and execute. That is exactly what the women of the 30's, 40s, 50s and 60's did. They wore pretty swim over-dresses,  playsuits, which were really some of the first pieces of sportswear created for women, or swimwear ensembles, which were more like outfits you could wear to lunch and then take a piece off and be ready to swim or lay out in the sun!


1946 Carven playsuit ensemble

You are probably thinking that Playsuits and beach ensembles sound like silly things to care about, with everything else going on in the world. But I think their disappearance represents symptoms of a larger problem, the lack of thought and care we put into things.  The way we, as modern day, (supposedly evolved) human beings, take just about everything for granted.  Maybe people should think more about the fact that being able to see a play, or go out to dinner is a privilege, and try just a little harder to let the appreciation of that privilege reflect a little more in their clothing. Dressing just a little nicer also says to the performers or restaurant owners that what they do is appreciated.  If we understood that going to the beach is actually a pretty wonderful thing to be able to do, and that some people in the world will never even be able to see the ocean, maybe it would be something we would value more, and  maybe we would take the time to be thankful, or at least, take a shower.


Vogue 1941 vintage playsuits


Claire McCardell, Tina Leser, Lanvin, Simonetta, Carolyn Shnurer, Emilio Pucci, Madame Gres, Christian Dior, Tom Brigance, Clare Potter, and other important designers understood the importance of respecting a change of venue.  Some of the beachwear they designed is nicer than most of the clothing we wear out to dinner today. Do you ever notice that if you put forth even a little effort and wear something a little nicer, everyone gets a little confused, almost irritated or threatened? "Why are you so dressed up?" "Where are YOU going?" etc..What's up with that?


Claire McCardell beach ensembles photographed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for Harper's Bazaar 1942


Claire McCardell playsuit photographed by Louise Dahl Wolfe in 1946


I'm not talking about wearing high heels and tulle to the beach or spending a small fortune on designer swimwear. I'M also not saying that your outfit can't be modern, I'm talking about your time, and the importance of spending time on little things.  If you are going on a hike, you are probably careful to wear the right shoes, socks, jacket, hat, why don't we put more thought into what we are wearing to class, the opera, a concert, the library, the grocery store, and yes, the beach?


Jean Patchett in a playsuit from Vogue 1951


Vogue 1951 Tina Leser vintage summer beach ensemble


Madame Gres June 1953 L'Offficiel Paris



George Dambier photograph 1950's Lanvin playsuit modeled by Barbara Mullen


Gres playsuit June 1950 l'Officiel Paris


I know that we can't live in the past, and I don't want to, but I do think we need to learn some things from the people who lived before us. The care they took with their clothing is just a symbol of the pace of their lives. It's not about focusing on ourselves too much, it's more about being careful and deliberate, even in something as seemingly superficial as our fashion choices. Those things are important,   not only because they make the world a more beautiful place, (yes I'm talking to you, the lady wearing pajama bottoms to the ballet), but because they slow us down a little, on this frantic, internet and selfie obsessed planet we all share. We don't live in bubbles, and to be aware of how our decisions will effect others is a good thing, even when it comes to our wardrobe decisions. Appropriate attire has less to do with class or status and more to do with respect. To take the time to even consider who made your clothing would be a good first step.


Caroline Shnurer 1950 Harper's Bazaar


June 1954 Harper's Bazaar Playsuit and matching umbrella


1955 Simonetta playsuit photograph by Mark Shaw for LIFE magazine.


Henry Clarke Photograph of a Christian Dior Playsuit in 1956


Don't get me wrong, I am guilty of wearing workout clothes all day and then putting on a jacket so that they look like leggings if I need to go to the store. I also am the guilty over-user of the jaw clip and dry shampoo, so I am preaching to myself as well! But I digress..I've been an advocate of ethical fashion for many years, and an aspect of that philosophy that isn't talked about as much is wardrobe planning and care. Ethical doesn't have to be unattractive, plain, or ordinary, but it does take a lot of thought. When women had to carefully plan what they wore and buy for an entire season, they needed to be more selective. 


Joanna McCormick photographed in the Virgin Islands by Richard Rutledge for Vogue-1957


1950s beach playsuit photographed by Tom Palumbo for Junior Bazaar


1960 Vogue magazine striped summer playsuit


Jerry Schatzberg photograph January 1959 Vogue


CZ Guest in a lovely all white swimwear ensemble in 1962


Grace Kelly, Princess Grace of Monaco when this photo was taken, in a Pucci silk caftan in 1972
A lot of obvious essential progress has undeniably been made to make our lives better since the beginning of the 20th century - advances in human rights and medicine, to name just two.  And yes, they smoked, wore fur and took too much Valium, but there are some things that women in the early and middle part of the 20th Century might have done right.  First of all, their closets were smaller, and I think that was a good thing. We don't need to buy more, (as I always say), we need to buy better. Yes, ethical fashion is about making sure that no harm came to the planet, human beings or animals when our garments were made or disposed of, but it also has to do with not buying the sheer volume of clothing we do, and with making meaningful choices about what we buy, and yes, how we dress.  Even if that means NOT buying another t-shirt, and sewing or buying a well made beach playsuit to wear this summer when we go beach-combing instead. You can even buy vintage playsuits (and I happen to know a place that sells them)! Playsuits and Swimwear at Vintage and resale clothing are other great options when you are trying to make ethical fashion choices.

Tom Palumbo photograph of a swimsuit ensemble with matching hat for Junior Bazaar


Okay, maybe playsuits and skirts that turn a halter swim top into a fashion statement are a silly example of how we can change the world, but I think if you look beneath the surface, you might just see that I am on to something much more important. If not, at the very least, if  I can convince us all to leave the pajama bottoms at home the next time we go to a Broadway play and think just a little more about what we wear and how much we buy, that would be a good start. More importantly, if the people who wore their workout clothes to that 5 star restaurant would stop and wonder about where and by whom those clothes were made, and about the impact that all of their choices have on others, that would be a very good thing.

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