August 27, 2011

Rose Marie Reid: Vintage Designer Bios

Rose Marie Reid was likely the most popular swimwear label of the 1950s, and her bathing attire remains just as attractive to the vintage clothing world today. The lady behind the label lived a remarkable life, outfitting the likes of Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe in her heyday.

She was born Rose Marie Yancey in 1906 to a Mormon family in Utah. Her upbringing lent itself to entreprenuerial success, as she worked in the family's grocery enterprise by age 14, and her mother taught her sewing at an expert level.

After marrying Jack Reid and moving to Canada, her bathing suits were borne out of a request by her husband for a pair of swim trunks in the early 1930s. His complaint was that swimsuits of the day were all-wool, and when soaked in water became very heavy and uncomfortable. She created a pair of trunks cut from an old duck-fabric coat, and laced the sides for a close fit. They were so functional that Jack arranged for a local department store to carry the swimwear, much to Rose Marie's reluctance. He'd even claimed they had similar (non-existent) women's suits available! With this, Reid Holiday Togs, Inc was created.

"What you really need is a new suit for sunning, last year's for swimming and an extra one just for fun. A wardrobe of three of four suits isn't at all unusual any more... and some women buy 12 or 13 at a time."

- Rose Marie Reid
(Burr & Petersen, p.95)

In their first year, the Reids showed six styles. In later years over 100 designs were shown in one season, as annual sales soared from $32,000 in 1938 to $834,000 in 1946. The war years stifled Rose Marie's creativity with quotas and fabric restrictions, but she continued to innovate.

Rose Marie began more direct competition with US swimsuit companies in 1946. With financial backing, Rose Marie's business overtook the industry in a few years, and quickly found her competitors copying her designs. Cole even had a suit they audaciously named "Rose Marie" because they'd stolen the design from her (Burr & Petersen, p. 89). By 1958, sales were $14 million as Rose Marie ruled a swimsuit empire.

Rose Marie was the first swimwear designer to come out with more than one line a year, including a late summer line and a resort & cruisewear line. Notable bathing suits included one "of glistening white" with a lobster placed on it, presumably after the surrealist Schiaparelli gown with the same theme (Burr & Petersen, p. 44). There was also a gold metallic suit with a price tag of $90, when most swimwear sold for $6.95 at the time. When Rita Hayworth bought one, Rose Marie enjoyed instant success despite the price. Another gold suit created in 1951 was actually precious metal, in black lace with 24-carat goldplating. This rarity sold for over $100 exclusively at Lord & Taylor.

Rose Marie found herself traveling to Europe for inspiration, and dining with the likes of designer Emilio Pucci and journalist Ann Scott James. Pucci complimented her by taking her swimsuits to his office staff. Even amidst the glamour, her personal style was endearing. At one RMR show, she'd had such a time crunch that the suits weren't priced beforehand. Rose Marie solved the problem by simply asking the models what they'd pay for the suits they wore! Then in 1955, a rose was created in her name, inspired by the colors in that year's swimsuit line. And in '58, she won the American Sportswear and Design Award. By 1959, her factories produced 10,000 suits per day. Rose Marie was on top of the world.

Just a few years later, RMR's swimwear success faltered with the bikini craze of the 1960s, and was accelerated by Rose Marie's emerging health troubles. Other designers were brought in to contribute designs, changing the atmosphere of the company for the worse. For the first time, some suits that had her label were not her designs.

Decorum was on Rose Marie's mind when the bikini binge began. Suddenly the midriff-baring two-piece suits were everywhere. At Saks, women over sixty were buying bikinis, and women sized 20 were requesting them. This change of taste was one Rose Marie tried to overcome by crusading for the modesty of the one-piece suits she made famous. She disavowed ever designing a bikini, but due to the collaborative design effort now present at RMR, bikinis were nonetheless made with the RMR label. She left the company she'd created in 1962, claiming the bikini was ultimately its demise. Rose Marie was not idle, however; she began marketing wigs in 1963.

Munsingwear bought the company, but had ceased operations of RMR swimwear by 1965. The name Rose Marie Reid is still licensed and manufactured today, owned for a time by United Merchants (who purchased Jonathan Logan in 1986), and then by Sirena Apparel Group who bought the name Rose Marie Reid in 1994.

Why was RMR so popular? Rose Marie sparked the very idea of beauty in swimwear, compared to earlier wool suits meant for sport, not style. Yet finding a flattering swimsuit was just as difficult then as today. As the swimsuit queen said herself, "Nothing is so brutally frank as the bare essentials of a bathing suit" (Burr & Petersen, p. 45).

To achieve the goal of flattery on every figure, Rose Marie always designed on the model to ensure a realistic shape even through the severe silhouette of the 1950s. She referred to her customers' various silhouettes as "jewel shapes" - six geometric shapes that were all stunning in their differences. A few of the innovations Rose Marie developed in her suits included:

  • tummy control panels
  • paneling that reproportioned the body
  • a long-line bra with plastic boning that creates a divided natural bustline, for full busts
  • vertical stripes that slimmed in a dress-like design, for full hips
  • "magic length" suits for the long-waisted
  • stay-down legs via an innovative crotch panel
  • brief skirts for full figures
*images from 1950s Rose Marie Reid pamphlet titled 'Which Jewel Shape is She?'

She found that pastels and dark colors seemed best for hiding figure flaws, and that she could manipulate fabrics' grains for rigidity or elasticity, depending on placement (like the bias cuts Vionnet used for dresses decades before). She made certain to include adjustable fittings & closures for a more tailored effect. Details previously used only in lingerie & evening wear, like boned bodices and wired bra cups, were added to achieve a smooth silhouette.

Rose Marie's intuitive genius created swimsuits that wore well, looked flattering and seemed so much more special than the utilitarian looks they originally replaced. From the 1950s to early 60s she ruled the swimsuit market, and she is well-remembered for her ambition and creativity.


Update (12/15/09):

An update on RMR's first-ever women's bathing suit from Colin Stevens of the New Westminster Museum of British Columbia, Canada:

Rose’s husband Jack was the swimming coach for Noel Oxenbury. He formed a swim club called the “”Crystal Club.” Rose Marie’s first 4 swimsuits were two male and two female:

Male - Jack Reid, her husband.
Male - Freddie Rossiter (swimmer)
Female - Noel Oxenbury (swimmer)
Female - Bunty Harrington (diver)

They modelled them for large department stores. The New Westminster Museum has uncovered the swimsuit made for and worn by Noel Oxenbury. It is green with white laces (one on each side.) The typed note that she pinned to the suit reads “The first ladies bathing suit made by “Rose Marie” Reid at the Crystal Pool and modeled by Noel Oxenbury for buyers from Spencers, Woodwards and the Hudson’s Bay era 1936 – 37.” Colin has graciously offered to provide us with a picture of the suit when available.

Bibliography:
Reid Burr, Carole and Petersen, Roger K. (1995). Rose Marie Reid: An Extraordinary Life Story
. Utah: Convenant Communications, Inc.

Additional Resources:
The California Swimsuit


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