Long before that poster of Cheryl Tiegs in a bathing suit, long before the legendary one of Farrah, there was Esther Williams. No one wore a swimming suit better than Williams.
She died this week at her home in Los Angeles at the age of 91, leaving a unique legacy. She was one of the original California girls, a competitive swimmer who broke many records. She would have competed for the U.S. in the 1940 Olympics, if they hadn’t been cancelled due to World War II. In the 1940’s, MGM signed her to a movie contract, where she splashed her way through over a dozen movies, specializing in underwater ballet and synchronized swimming; she radiated a wholesome sexiness while wearing a swimsuit in the majority of her scenes. Movie critic Pauline Kael once wrote that Williams’ greatest movie talent was “her magnificent athletic body.”
Her swimsuit style may seem a bit modest today, but she was an advocate of the “more is more” approach. And all the retro styles she popularized are back in fashion now, currently available in a variety of stores like Urban Outfitters and Target. This season Spanx makes a swimsuit that could be straight out of Williams’ closet and so does the designer ASOS.
One of Williams’ best looks was a two-piece white suit, with lingerie details. The bottom was a boy short with flattering ruching across the middle and the top was tiny triangles with extended panels filling out the top on the two sides. Rehearsing for the movie Ziegfeld’s Follies in 1945, Williams was photographed wearing another two piece number, this one sleeker and made from an engaging mix of prints that looks like something Italian designer Etro might make today.
For the movie Pagan Love Song (1950), Williams wore a strapless one-piece with a bold island graphic across the top; wrapped around her hips was a matching pareo. It’s a look that transcends decades.
Williams capitalized on her popularity by selling her own line of swimsuits, with her most popular look a one-piece sheath suit with a halter neckline. With princess seaming and middle ruching, it’s a look that anyone can wear comfortably. Enthusiasts of the style today can find the Esther Williams model at modcloth.com.
Whatever kind of suit she wore, Williams always looked comfortable and confident—no small feat while wearing a bathing suit. Partly it was because she once said that she could hardly remember a day while she was growing up that she hadn’t worn a suit; partly it was her terrific figure. But more than anything, Williams conveyed an ease with one’s self, a fearless ability to relax in the moment. And that is something we can all use every time we face a swimsuit.