Monday, May 16, 2011

Cinema Style File--the Bathing Beauty of Esther Williams

Memorial Day is fast approaching as our unofficial start to summer and who better to kick off swimsuit season than Esther Williams.  Turner Classic Movies clearly thought much the same thing when they chose to celebrate Esther's iconic image throughout May as their Star of the Month.  Though many starlets have looked gorgeous in a gown or delightful in a dress, it's awfully difficult to look sophisticated in a swimsuit. Yet somehow Esther Williams did it time and time again.  In fact, she's so statuesque, you often forget how much she's actually in one.  This says a lot about Esther considering the conservative nature of the nation when she became a star.  One of the reasons she's such a natural is the fact that she was a competitive athlete before joining the studios.  She also took a great deal of control over her image and was largely responsible for an evolution in swimwear that took place both on and offscreen, including originating styles that remain popular to this day.  Though known for her beauty in the movies, Esther is clearly so much more.

Esther Williams is a true Los Angeles girl.  She was born in Inglewood, California, after her family relocated here so that her brother Stanton could become a star.  Unfortunately, that dream never manifested itself and her family experienced many early struggles, especially financial.  It was never an easy time for Esther and it was really her athleticism that saved her.

For fun and then to make a little money, Esther went with her sister to a pool in Manhattan Beach, an area just south of where I live in Santa Monica.  At the pool, the male lifeguards took a not-so-surprising interest in the beautiful Esther and started to teach her competitive swimming, quickly discovering how gifted she was.  She was so strong that they taught her the butterfly breaststroke, considered a "male" swimming move at the time.  Esther took it and started competing...and winning.  First on a medley team at the Los Angeles Athletic Club and later not one but three U.S. National Championships by the time she was 16.  Esther even qualified and was destined for the 1940 Olympics, but unfortunately it was not to be.  Everything suddenly erupted in World War II.

Esther at the Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1939 (above)
and later at Santa Monica beach

After going to school and working around Los Angeles, Esther was discovered while modeling at I. Magnin and asked to join the Aquacade at San Francisco's Golden Gate International Exposition in 1940.  It was there that she attracted the attention of MGM scouts along with her co-star Johnny Weissmuller, who would later become Tarzan.  When MGM signed her the following year, she made sure her contract included a guest pass to swim at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool every single day.  As someone who loves pools and the ocean, Esther is a woman after my own heart.

 The Beverly Hills Hotel Sand and Pool Club (circa 1940s)

For two decades, Esther worked for MGM mostly appearing in movies that gave audience to her graceful swimming and fabulous figure.  I can only imagine the impact she made back in the ultra conservative 1940s.  Most girls are afraid to appear even briefly on camera in a swimsuit...that's still often true today.  But for Esther, it became her regular gig and she somehow managed to be sensual without being overtly sexual.  She was absolutely stunning, even and especially when wet.  This was due to her own natural talents and her collaboration with MGM's costume designer and supervisor, Helen Rose.  The movies are still popular to this day...well-known titles like Bathing Beauty, Ziegfeld Follies, Neptune's Daughter, Jupiter's Darling, and Million Dollar Mermaid.

Million Dollar Mermaid was Esther's favorite film of hers.  It was the perfect vehicle considering it was the true story of another groundbreaking water woman, Annette Kellerman.  It was also directed by the great Busby Berkeley who gave Esther some of the greatest synchronized swimming sequences ever, even if one did result in an accident that took seven months to recover.  In addition, it was a happy time for her personally...Esther enjoyed a passionate affair with co-star Victor Mature, who gave her the love she deserved but had not easily found in any of her multiple marriages.  It is for all of these reasons that Esther named her biography after the film.

Beyond the movies, what's most fascinating to me about Esther is the evolution of swimwear she spearheaded.  It's hard to remember a time when swimwear wasn't part of the mainstream, but in the 1940s the industry didn't really exist.  Swimsuits were made out of ridiculous fabrics if they even existed at all.  Studio costume designers certainly were not experts on the subject either.  For example, Esther wore a flannel swimsuit--yes, flannel--on the movie Thrill of a Romance that got so heavy when water-logged that it dragged her to the bottom of the pool.  To escape drowning, she had to completely strip out of it and swim naked to the top.  That must have been an interesting day for the crew.

Cole of California was one of the first companies to make major changes in swimwear.  They used latex in their suits--which finally supported women's figures--and ceased to use fasteners like zippers.  It was exactly what Esther was looking for, so she turned to them rather than the studios to outfit her in films.  She enjoyed their collaboration so much that she signed a contract with them in 1948, which made an immediate impact on swimwear's function and fashion.  Swimsuits went mainstream under Esther...everyone wanted one.   Even the Secretary of the Navy instantly replaced the inferior cotton suits worn by the WAVES with 50,000 of Esther's.  Esther's influence is so strong that it really does continue to this day and my next blog will show the true impact of her style.  Whether it's a suit with retro-inspired glamour or a simple athletic tank, they are all direct descendants of Esther Williams.

Esther was responsible for making synchronized swimming fashionable as well.  Though Annette Kellerman is credited with creating synchronized swimming, it was Esther's movies that made it madly popular.  It became so popular and well respected that it was turned into an Olympic event.  And it, too, is enjoying a retro resurgence today.  Esther and co-star Betty Garrett screened their movie Neptune's Daughter poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel at last year's TCM Classic Film Festival, a screening that was made complete with synchronized swimmers--the Aqualillies.  As you can see, the ladies put on a lovely show for the appreciative festival fans...performing in red Esther Williams swimsuits, of course.

With everything that Esther accomplished and represents, I've become a real fan. There's so much for me to relate to.  She faced incredible adversity throughout her life and made the absolute most of her natural ability.  She was an Olympic-level athlete at a time when women were not encouraged to do sports.  She was an innovator in a industry that didn't even really exist before her.  And her style--at once functional and fashionable--continues to this day.  With swimwear now so much a part of the mainstream, Esther Williams is a perfect example of the impact of classic cinema and how its style still resonates in our fashion trends today.  Smart and sexy all in the name of another of her MGM hits, Esther really is Easy to Love.


Marline said...

Never thought much about Esther, Kimberly and this post makes me just love her! I don't know if you saw her home movies at TCM Film Fest this year (I think you were on duty at Love Story or something?), but Esther's films of teaching her kids to swim were simply precious! She clearly loved her kids and was a beauty thru and thru. You've made me want to learn more about her! Just LOVED this post and can't wait for the next one on her continuing style! I know Rose Marie Reid had a lot of impact on swimwear, too, but I never realized how much we owe to the beautiful Esther! You did a marvelous job on this!!!!

Kimberly Truhler said...

Thank you, Kay! It is remarkable about her influence, isn't it? Like you, the more I learned about her, the more I wanted to know and the more impressed I became. It was especially true when I did the next post in correlating today's bathing suit styles with her own, especially when Esther was so hands on in their design. So talented and so beautiful...loved having the opportunity to share her story. Wish I could have caught the home movies at the festival!

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