Baby, it's cold outside, and most of us may be dreaming of drinking hot chocolate in front of a fire rather than having to face the cold to go to work, battle queues for the Christmas shopping or go about boring daily errands. But there are other ways to get warm and inspired while dreaming about leisure time in the sun.
One option is watching films set in warm locations or showing bathing beauties à la Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid, another may be visiting "Sun-Drenched Style: California Mid-Century Women Designers" at the FIDM Museum at the Orange County Campus of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (until June 10, 2017; free but by appointment only).
This is a small and compact exhibition, so don't expect hundreds of designs and multiple rooms and spaces to visit. There are indeed only 6 bathing suits on display and 6 fully-styled mannequins and assorted ephemera. Yet these pieces may offer visitors the chance to get to know the designers exhibited. The women designers featured in this exhibition were indeed inspired by the West Coast and by a carefree and dynamic lifestyle.
Though overlooked in favour of designers from the East Coast, Louella Ballerino, Agnes Barrett, Margit Fellegi, Addie Masters, and Rose Marie Reid contributed to the history of fashion with swimsuits, patio pajamas, play clothes, and relaxed separates ideal for indoor and outdoor leisure activities that defined the California aesthetic and helped the wearer embracing the freedom and modernity of California culture.
Most of the designs on display could be filed under the casual-chic label and functioned pretty well in most situations, so they could be used for beach breaks,poolside cocktails and outdoor barbecues, but also for evening events.
Addie Masters (1901-1983) was for example known as the ultimate California hostess in her private circle. She started her career in 1940 and her loungewear in vibrant colours, rich fabrics and impeccable construction and fit became pretty popular: if you leaf through vintage magazines such as The Californian you may easily spot culotte pants, beach pajamas, her iconic hostess pants that made her famous and her "wrap rascal" dress, a simple wrap-around style that debuted in 1939. During World War II, Masters abandoned her hostess pajamas due to the L-81 fabric restrictions.
In the late 1950s, Masters revived her signature hostess pajamas with trademark California prints, but the "Sun-Drenched Style" event features an Indian sari skirt by Masters that shows an Eastern inspiration. The garment is matched with a bathing suit, which could easily transform the look from an ensemble fir for a casual swim to perfect for a cocktail hour. The beaded Western blouse in the exhibition also shows another trend - "souvenir" clothes, that is garments someone would have bought to display their California adventure back home.
Louella Ballerino provided interesting fashion solutions and different inspirations. Around 1929 Ballerino was as a freelance fashion illustrator in Los Angeles, while working full-time in a custom dress shop and teaching evening fashion design courses at a technical college. In 1938 a manufacturer rejected her sketch for a peasant-style dress, but Ballerino trusted her instincts and passions and hired a manufacturer to make the dress that went sold out as soon as it arrived in a shop in Hollywood.
Ballerino was very much influenced by Mexico, Africa and Asia, and, inspired by annual trips to other countries (Italy, India, Holland and numerous other countries became firm inspirations...) and extensive researches in library and museums, she created her trademark transnational style.
The designer often imported handwoven fabrics for use in her collections and integrated Mexican and South American motifs in her dresses. Some of her dresses in a style that was dubbed "peasant", became pretty popular among the film stars of those times.
The FIDM Museum owns in its collection a coarse hopsacking dress decorated with wood squares and embroideries inspired by the Tongan tribe of Africa, but in this exhibition Ballerino is instead represented by an iconic coral silk cropped top with black silk appliques in a stylized floral pattern inspired by the designer's research into the dress and culture of Latin America, while the shape and silhouette of the garment clearly shows an architectural derivation.
The story of these designers is also linked with several collaborations with fabric and textile manufacturers and with other swimwear companies.
Rose Marie Reid used for example fashion-forward fabrics including lamé and velvet for her designs and some of her swim suits were so rich that they wouldn't have looked out of place if donned as part of an evening ensemble.
Reid also used photo-permable fabric to facilitate a suntan, sculpted her silhouettes with built-in brassieres that controlled the figure and became a favourite of many Hollywood stars including Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe.
Famous for her glamorus swimwear with an arty colourful twist but with an easy and functional fit and clean lines, loved by ordinary women and stars alike, Fellegi created in the '60s the Scandal Swimsuit and before that the Swoon Suit. The former featured elastic mesh and fabric and created a sensual and daring peek-a-boo style, while the latter featured side laces.
Among the designers on display there is also Agnes Barrett: active from the 1930s through the 1950s, she is credited with inventing the broomstick skirt. It was made by wrapping a wet cotton skirt around a broomstick and tying it securely whith strings while it dried. The uneven crinckled effects produced created unique designs and the skirt - very popular before wartime restrictions limited the use of cotton cloth - was sold with a stick that allowed consumers to recrinkle it.
Together with Peggy Hunt, Marjorie Montgomery, Irene Bury, Mabs Barnes and Viola Dimmitt, Addie Masters, Louella Ballerino and Agnes Barrett were part of a group called the Affiliated Fashionists, set to promote Californian fashion and keep up high standard of California design.
This may sound like an impossible idea in the highly competitive contemporary fashion industry in which backstabbing seems to be the rule, but a group of designers devoted to keep the standards high could actually represent an inspiring way to revive the industry, so there seems to be a more important lesson to be learnt among the fun leisure and swimwear featured in this compact exhibit.