Jantzen Popularizes the One-Piece Bathing Suit Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A rib-knit elasticized one-piece (maillot) bathing suit devised by Jantzen Knitting Mills in 1913 gained widespread popularity in the 1920’s.

Summary of Event

In 1913, John Zehntbauer, Roy Zehntbauer, and Carl Jantzen, owners of the Portland (Oregon) Knitting Company, Portland Knitting Company founded in 1909, were asked by a member of the city’s rowing club to create a wool crewing suit for use on the Willamette River on cold days. The company produced a suit made of rib-knit wool. Jantzen had devised a machine that produced a tightly knit rib stitch used to manufacture hosiery and cuffs for woolen sweaters, socks, scarves, mittens, and caps. Jantzen’s revolutionary manufacturing process created a stretchable, springy woolen cloth that retained its shape and did not absorb huge amounts of water. The young business executives used this cloth to manufacture the suit requested. The rower, satisfied with the garment, then wanted a full suit made of the rib-knit cloth for swimming. Fashion design;swimsuits Design;clothing Bathing suits Swimsuits Jantzen, Inc. [kw]Jantzen Popularizes the One-Piece Bathing Suit (1920’s) [kw]One-Piece Bathing Suit, Jantzen Popularizes the (1920’s)[One Piece Bathing Suit, Jantzen Popularizes the (1920s)] [kw]Bathing Suit, Jantzen Popularizes the One-Piece (1920’s) Fashion design;swimsuits Design;clothing Bathing suits Swimsuits Jantzen, Inc. [g]United States;1920’s: Jantzen Popularizes the One-Piece Bathing Suit[04910] [c]Fashion and design;1920’s: Jantzen Popularizes the One-Piece Bathing Suit[04910] Zehntbauer, John Jantzen, Carl Zehntbauer, Roy Heinemann, Mitch

The piece of swimwear originally manufactured was exceedingly heavy, weighing two pounds dry and eight pounds wet; its weight was its major drawback. A research team comprising the Zehntbauer brothers, Jantzen, Sam Street, and printer Joe Gerber began to test swimwear made with rib-knit fabric at two sites: the pool at the local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Willamette River. Before the end of 1913, they had achieved their goal of a lightweight, bodyhugging suit, and other members of the Portland Rowing Club team wanted to purchase the swimwear.

A public official concerned with decency measures the distance between knee and bathing suit on women in Washington, D.C., in 1922.

(Library of Congress)

The Zehntbauers and Jantzen realized that a large market existed not only for men’s but also for women’s swimwear. In 1915, they began to manufacture for general sale elasticized rib-knit swimsuits for both men and women. A high volume of sales at the regional level led them in 1916 to decrease their production of sweaters and accessory items and to concentrate on rib-knit bathing suits. They were also aware that market trends indicated that swimwear for women represented a potential for growth in the garment industry.

The swimsuits that the Portland Knitting Company manufactured were referred to as male and female tank suits, or maillots, but the male and female versions differed very little. Both were made of elasticized rib-knit wool in a number of colors with bright horizontal stripes across the chest, hips, and thighs. The maillot was manufactured in one piece, with deep cuts at the armholes, a low, rounded neckline (later, V-necks were added), narrow shoulder straps, and trunks extending to the top of the thighs. The suit also was distinctive in that it did not have or need a drawstring at the waist. It was sold with the guarantee that it would fit any body type. Customers were amazed that a small, tightly knit suit could expand to fit a large adult.

The popularity of the rib-knit suit, especially among women, exceeded the expectations of the Portland Knitting Company’s administrators. In 1917, the company sold approximately six hundred maillots; in 1919, the number rose to forty-one hundred. To meet the demands of the ever-expanding market, the company expanded its operations. It changed its name in 1918 to Jantzen Knitting Mills, which ultimately became Jantzen, Inc.

The group that accounted for the largest volume of maillot sales consisted of young women empowered by the women’s rights movement. Their assertion of independence was reflected in their manner of dress. When women entered the workforce during World War I, they often found they needed greater freedom of physical movement, and this supported the growing female demand for less restrictive and confining clothing. The loosening of restrictions on female movement quickly gave rise to women’s rejection of many of the impractical fashions of the past. The creative efforts undertaken by such European couturiers as Paul Poiret Poiret, Paul to revolutionize women’s fashion and create the straight, slim, T-shaped silhouette was a 1912 cultural crosscurrent that also helped make the female maillot costume acceptable.


Young women of the 1920’s were more than ready to set aside the cumbersome bathing costume that was fashionable in the mid-nineteenth century, when bathing was first considered socially acceptable. The costume, designed to cover most of the female form, consisted of a short-sleeved, knee-length dress worn over a pair of knickerbockers, or bloomers. The dress, like the bloomers, was made of a plain, checked, striped, or floral fabric. In one of the more popular versions of this costume, the dress and knickers were made of dark blue or black serge. Accessories consisted of dark stockings and boots that laced to the middle of the calf. A cloth bathing cap also was worn. Such items of apparel were suitable only for low-water wading; they prevented women from engaging in the more vigorous sport of swimming.

The Jantzen maillot, designed to fit all body sizes and contours, was most attractive when worn by young people who were tall and slim, male or female. Although the public accepted without controversy the male version of the maillot, the first women who appeared at beaches and amusement centers clad in Jantzen suits were accused of indecently exposing their bodies. Many enraged citizens demanded that officials pass ordinances to keep women from appearing in public wearing the suits, and many local governments did so, some even prohibiting women from wearing any type of one-piece swimwear. In 1922, maillot-clad women who appeared on the beaches in the Chicago area were arrested. In 1924, Boston banned the costume. On the East Coast, plainclothes policewomen patrolled many beaches to prevent the use of the facilities by females wearing maillots.

Jantzen’s executives undertook an extensive advertising campaign to sell the suit and further increase the already enormous demand for it. Their marketing strategies entailed the creation of a positive image for wearers of the suit, especially women, and the acceptance of swimming as a valued recreational activity. Mitch Heinemann, one of Jantzen’s first salespeople, was selected to direct the advertising campaign, and he proved to be one of the garment industry’s most daring and creative marketing specialists. He convinced Americans that the maillot was manufactured for swimming rather than for bathing. He bombarded the nation with the slogan “The Suit That Changed Bathing to Swimming.” By 1924, champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, Weissmuller, Johnny who later portrayed Tarzan in numerous films, was wearing a Jantzen suit.

Another successful advertising device that Heinemann implemented was the production and distribution in 1916 of a sticker for car windshields and store windows. It depicted a woman clad in a red Jantzen swimsuit in a diving position. By the end of the 1920’s, the company had given away ten million of the stickers. Some states attempted to halt the campaign by refusing to give driving licenses to individuals who displayed on their windshields the famous Jantzen logo, the Red Diving Girl or Jantzen Girl. Jantzen Girl logo Authorities claimed that the stickers reduced drivers’ field of vision.

The Red Diving Girl emblem was the creation of two freelance artists, Florence and Frank Clark. The Clarks submitted two designs for the logo. Both graphically depicted a tall, slim young woman in a red bathing suit, red cap, and midlength red stockings. In one design, the Red Diving Girl was captured in a realistic diving pose. The other design featured a stylized female figure clad in the same costume but captured in a graceful curved diving position. Joe Gerber, Jantzen’s printer, made the selection, choosing the more stylized version of the Red Diving Girl. In addition to providing an image for stickers, the logo, in response to customers’ demands, was sewn onto on all swimwear sold by Jantzen. At first, it took the form of a fourteen-inch felt emblem attached to the chest of all suits; later, it was reduced in size to ten inches and was placed on the bottom part of the suit.

Within a short time, the Jantzen Girl was among the most recognized company logos in the United States. The image of the female figure would be modernized periodically, but the color of the suit remained, as did the suspended diving position. Notable graphic designers and illustrators aside from the Clarks who gave life to the Red Diving Girl over the years included McClelland Barclay, Coles Phillips, and Alberto Vargas. Barclay, who during the 1920’s and the 1930’s established the image of the ideal American woman, was the illustrator who introduced the Red Diving Girl to readers of the Saturday Evening Post. In 1941, Jantzen called on Vargas to modernize the Red Diving Girl; his initial efforts appeared in an Esquire calendar given to three thousand customers.

In order to promote swimming and water sports as major leisure-time pursuits, Heinemann launched in 1926 a national “Learn-to-Swim Week” campaign. Participants competed in swim meets, earned diplomas, and received discounts and merchandise from store tie-ins. Jantzen advertisements made it clear that people could more readily be safe, gain physical fitness, and have fun if they were clad in Jantzen swimsuits. Johnny Weissmuller was one of the live images that Heinemann used to draw attention to this campaign and the Jantzen swimsuit. Heinemann’s use of soon-to-be-discovered sports and film personalities to advertise Jantzen swimsuits was a tactic emulated effectively by his successors. In the 1940’s, Jantzen employed an eighteen-year-old Hollywood High School student, James Garner, and a young woman known as Norma Jean Baker, who had not yet assumed the name of Marilyn Monroe, Monroe, Marilyn to promote its swimwear. In the 1947 Jantzen style book, Garner and Monroe were Jantzen’s featured swimsuit models.

In 1928, encouraged by Heinemann, Jantzen established an amusement park, the Jantzen Beach Amusement Center. The huge complex was operated by the Hayden Island Development Corporation until July 7, 1970. Billed as the Coney Island of the Pacific Northwest, the Jantzen Beach park, designed by architects Paul H. Huedepohl and Richard Sundeleaf, provided the public with four large swimming pools, poolside fashion shows, a spectacular roller coaster and other rides, a ballroom, and more.

Within less than a decade after its introduction, the maillot was considered normative swimwear and Jantzen was the largest swimsuit manufacturer in the world. By 1925, the Jantzen maillot was sold in Europe, and soon after in South Africa, South America, and Australia. By the 1940’s, other companies began to compete more aggressively with the Portland-based company for market shares. To retain a favorable sales volume, Jantzen introduced a new sweater line, but the company continued to manufacture bathing suits and to serve as a trendsetter in the field of swimwear. Fashion design;swimsuits Design;clothing Bathing suits Swimsuits Jantzen, Inc.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis: Burgess, 1970. Well-written and effectively organized volume on fashion from antiquity to recent times. Interesting section on approaches to the design of costumes. Includes brief discussion of swimwear. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boucher, François. Twenty Thousand Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1967. An overview of fashions and accessories from antiquity into the modern era. Discusses the individuals and forces that shaped modern modes of dress. Reproductions of paintings, photographs, and sketches effectively enhance the text.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cleary, David Powers. Great American Brands: The Success Formulas That Made Them Famous. New York: Fairchild, 1981. A history of thirty-four American companies and their trademarked brands. The section on Jantzen provides interesting information on the company’s marketing activities. Includes illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Marly, Diana. Fashion for Men: An Illustrated History. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985. A short but informative history of men’s fashions, including swimwear, since the medieval period. Ninety-six illustrations, mainly reproductions of paintings and photographs. Includes brief glossary and extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Rev. ed. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992. A fine social and intellectual history of fashion in modern times. Examines historical antecedents as well as particular styles and fashion events in a detailed and pleasing manner. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lencek, Lena, and Gideon Bosker. “Making Waves: How Pacific Northwest Swimsuits Undressed America.” Pacific Northwest 23 (July, 1989): 32-33, 87. A concise history of the Jantzen company, its marketing strategies, and its impact on fashion. Also includes a short history of another swimwear company, Rose Marie Reid.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nunn, Joan. Fashion in Costume: 1200-2000. 2d ed. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 2000. An overview of fashion history from the medieval period to the end of the twentieth century. Illustrated with black-and-white sketches. Includes bibliography and index.

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Categories: History