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Aug 29, 2012

Happiness Is a 1940's Two-Piece Swimsuit

Maybe I've watched too many Esther Williams movies.  Maybe I'm so immersed in vintage womens swimsuit patterns that I've lost perspective.

I've come to believe that the most flattering two-piece bathing suit is one cut much like the suit Esther is wearing above.  It's also the shape of these lovely suits modeled by Ava Gardner below (with slight variations).

And it's the shape of Simplicity 1612.  In fact, the bottom of Simplicity 1612 is nearly identical to Ava's polka dotted suit above -- note the side lacing.

I know it's probably not the most comfortable suit bottom to wear, with your belly button covered up and all, but it does hold one in -- not that anybody should be held in, mind you, but isn't it nice to know you have the option?  Notice how some suits have a skirt-like flat panel that covers the crotch while others are just the plain suit bottom with a little ruching.

Notice too, how the silhouette for both mens and womens swimsuit bottoms is nearly identical.  (Keep that in mind when you see my results.)


Simplicity 1612 is ruched all over and I must say I love the look. Can someone please tell me why nobody every ruched mens bathing suits?  It's not sequins, after all.

These late 30's and 40's suits were cut high on the leg (essentially at crotch level) but always came up above the belly button (at least in period movies and ads).  This seems foreign to us today but I think it's very flattering to many people, especially those of us with short legs and longish waists.

Name that blonde!

I remain on the fence about the side lacing for this suit.  It requires thirty-two eyelets (or grommets, so I'd be pounding those all day and seriously pissing off the neighbors).  On my muslin, I used my Singer buttonholer to make the holes, and I picked the smallest, roundest buttonhole template I had. In retrospect, I should have made the holes vertical, but really, it doesn't matter -- my results were underwhelming.  Plus, it's a detail that doesn't really show up on a print fabric; on a solid, it might stand out more.

The end of each front and back piece has a narrow panel where the eyelets (or grommets) go.  There are some small pleats in back and ruching in front, along with an elastic strip that gathers the front center seam (which in the final suit will be in a casing).  I ended up lacing only one side of the suit (with rayon seam binding since I didn't have ribbon).  On the other side, I inserted a zipper, just to see what that might look like.


I think what I'll end up doing is make a single, wide side panel rather than two that are laced together, and then on one side have the back of the side panel lap over a zipper.  Or, I could put the zipper in the back, like on this beautiful vintage satin and nylon suit currently for sale on Etsy.

This suit is also remarkably similar to Simplicity 1612, albeit with wide black satin trim instead of bias strips (which I didn't add to the muslin).

I must say I am enjoying this project immensely -- who knew the world of 1940's bathing suits was such a rich one?

QUESTION: How high on your waist do you like to wear your bathing suit bottoms?   Do you ever prefer to keep your belly button hidden?  Enquiring minds want to know.

Have a great day everybody!


  1. HIGH WAISTED ALL THE WAY! I'm a total convert after the success of my last suit. But it's a tricky proportion - it really has to sit right at the natural waistline or it looks really frumpy. I have a long torso so it doesn't truncate things in a weird way. I think unless you are uber skinny it's better to have low cut legs too - the high cut bottom makes those of us with hips and bums look ghastly. Can't wait to see the final product!

  2. Not sure about the suit but the video was terrific-

  3. I love your blog! I just bought a 60's version of the above and I love it! Bullet bra top + true high waist bikinis are my fav! Yours looks like it is coming out great! What I can't stand are these modern throw back suits with the high waists that hit right at the belly button. So unflattering! They really should hit at the true waist or well below the belly button in my opinion.

  4. That blonde looks like a young Marilyn Monroe to me.

  5. My boyfriend likes me in a modern-ish two-piece and I am leaning towards a retro one-piece so this would be the perfect compromise! Definitely over or just at the belly-button and maybe some stiff material in the front just to control the egg/tummy a bit. And either a straight-ish across cut or a faux skirt lip cause my crotch contour needs some coverage.

    Great blog!

  6. Belly buttons were not allowed to be shown in TV until well into the 60s and maybe not till the 70s; it was a historical moment when they appeared in print/on the TV screen! just look at the "I Dream of Jeannie" re-tuns- her belly button never appears anywhere! Don't forget: it was in 1969 or thereabouts that Nan Kempner the wealthy socialite, was refused admission to a restaurant for wearing PANTS.Now we have farts and toilets putting in regular appearances on a regular basis and even any number of vulgarities and obscenities (anyone remember George Carlin's routine "The seven words that can't be said on television"?) scattered freely in the media and screamed loudly and frequently by the neighbours'kids while playing (words that would have earned many a mouthful of SOAP in our day)

  7. The whole two piece vs bikini debate made an appearance in a Mad men episode. The Jantzen guy explained that they were a family company that made a two piece. It was wholesome & respectable - a bikini wasn't. Personally I prefer a modern low slung suit. But I did spend college @ Miami during the days of how low can your pants rise go! Then again I'm pretty petite so nothing RTW seems to fit my waist - and a good fit is crucial to avoid any water related wardrobe malfunctions!

  8. I love the high waisted swimsuits on others, but as someone with long legs and a short torso, the look doesn't really work for me. There's just not enough space between the top and bottom! I prefer my bottoms just below my belly button.

  9. Oh, And I love to rock a vintage high waist. My figure takes to vintage styles beautifully. Modern styles? Ehh, hit or miss.

  10. I've just made a bikini with high waisted bottoms myself. Modern fabric and construction, retro shape. And last year, I made a one piece bathing suit with that skirt flap detail.
    I like those shapes of yesteryear, although it does, of course work better on certain body shapes.
    Modern bikinis can be a bit scary. Before I made mine, I tried on some RTW ones. The 'standard' bottoms were cut so low that even when I tried on 3 sizes larger than usual (thinking I could always take in the sides), I thought they were too low...

  11. I love the proportions on that suit, and would love to see that really come back into fashion. But I think the 32 buttonholes are worth the trouble, as they really add a feminine detail to your suit...if you don't think it's showing up enough you could try a contrasting tie, but I hope you keep this feature either way.

  12. I disagree on that swimsuit being the most universally flattering two piece swimsuit. It flatters an hourglass shape but not a pear, rectangle or apple shape.

  13. Hello from Blighty, I'm your newest follower.
    Love love love your blog. Truly inspirational...
    Oh and it's MM of course:)

  14. Would sewn on rings work for side lacing? Or fabric loops sewn into the seam?

  15. I like the lacing, it adds ruching.

    If you do enough grommets, it would be worth it to buy an arbor press, like this one:

    It gives a lot better and more consistent result.

    1. Another option that was recommended to me but I haven't personally used - does snaps, grommets, etc. just have to have the correct die..

  16. I love and miss higher waisted swimsuits, but my shape probably has alot to do with that. I have a long torso and short legs. Newer suits never cover enough of my mid section to feel comfortable. Give me a high waist and high cut legs anytime.

  17. I'm a high cut leg girl myself. But since I wear tankinis, how high on the waist is no matter. At my age (and weight), I'm lucky to be allowed on the beach.

    I think your muslin looks good and the finished results should be just fine for Cousin Cathy! The lacing should help camouflage any post baby tummy issues. Just remember if she actually plans to swim in it, to preview how it stays in place in the tub first. (That was a timely tip from my Cousin Diana.)

  18. The swim suit bottoms with ruching or shirring can look a little like adult diapers.

  19. I love the vintage suits that go to the natural waist, but the leg is cut somewhat high, as yours appears to be. The tops are also more flattering and less prone to the “costume malfunctions” of bikinis. Back in the day (let’s not say how far back), my bikini came right off me while swimming in the ocean.

    (Showing) less is more, I say.

    Your swimsuit is looking great. Cathy is gonna love it.

  20. Ester and her suit get a 10! The guys in the underwear suits - not so much.

  21. Sorry, I have to go negatory on vintage suits. To me they look like granny panties, and the ruched ones like adult diapers. Just can't go there.

    I don't think there is one universally attractive bikini either. Probably whatever fits well, functions for the use, and one feels pretty in is the best suit to wear.

  22. SeamsterEast@aol.comAugust 30, 2012 at 6:04 PM

    For more than a couple grommets, I definitely recommend a pair of grommet pliars. (Dritz calls them grommet pliar, but you get both pieces of the tool. /grin/)

    I use a seriously heavy hand grommet setter(*) when I do canvas work, preferring it by far to a heavy hammer and die. (Note, canvas grommets are mucho heavy and starred inside to grip the canvas unload, as opposed to regular grommets (sold at Home Depot and such) for grommets for plastic tarps.)

    (*) costs about $150, plus about $50 for each size hole cutter, each size die.

    I make mention of it for two reasons. One, I find grommet tool convenient to no end. Two, because maybe -- I don't know -- clothing grommets also come in light duty and heavy duty versions. I imagine across the hip in an active athletic movement the stress might be quite strong.

  23. I have to say that the high waisted bottoms can make anyone look a little bottom heavy. Also, I have some high waisted pants and from that experience, I would be worried a high waisted bottom, if not stretchy enough, would really dig into the belly when you sit down and also cause some unwelcome bulging. Although you are pretty slim, so bulging less likely.

  24. Peter, we just found your blog and LOVE the retro swimwear. We too are huge fans of vintage patterns and retro sewing. We are Sampson & Lorrie (daughter/mother blogging team). We will be back to visit you again! Please come and visit us, if you have the time. We would love to chat more bout vintage sewing. We actually just finished a 1950's swimsuit and will be posting pics of the finished product on our blog this week. Really love your photo selections in the post here. I'm certain that you must be as disheartened as we are to have learned that Ester Williams just passed away. It was a sad day for us.

    Your new friends,
    Sampson & Lorrie


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