Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Telescopic water suit, Martin White, 1937.

This bright, cherry red swimsuit never fails to make me smile and it is one of my favourite objects from our current exhibition, Beside the sea. It was designed by Martin White in 1937 as a ‘telescopic’, one-size-fits-all, swimming costume, which is essentially achieved by shirring with an elasticated thread on the sides and rear (refer detailed image on the right, below). 

Martin White telescopic swimsuit, AIBDC : 008463
Image credit: MoDiP

Versatile in its styling, the swimsuit could be worn in various ways, as illustrated by the 1951 advert from the film magazine, ‘Picturegoer’, below right. 

The fabrics used in early swimwear were commonly dark coloured, as this was considered less revealing when wet, and predominantly made of natural but restrictive materials such as wool, which could provide some stretch but was particularly heavy and uncomfortable when wet. As swimming as a sport and sea bathing as a leisure activity became more popular, there was demand for improved fit and practicality in the associated clothing. Influenced by mainstream fashion, changing societal attitudes to body exposure and advancements in synthetic textile technology, designs became smaller and more streamlined. 

Lastex™, first released in 1931, helped to revolutionise swimwear. An elastic yarn consisting of an extruded rubber core covered in cotton, rayon, wool or silk thread, Lastex™ could be knitted or woven into a variety of fabrics to produce one-way or two-way stretch, depending upon how it was used. It enabled the mass production of lightweight garments that would mould to the body, providing fit, freedom and control, first appearing in corsetry. 

Sears catalogue, 1932.
Image credit:

In 1937, the British swimwear company Martin White utilised the Lastex™ thread on its own to create shirring in their telescopic water suit. The patent, filed by Jack French White the year before (refer image below), shows how this was realised. Proposing the use of a material with little or no inherent stretch, the elasticated thread would be inserted into the fabric in widely spaced intervals and in two directions, at right angles to each other. Applied in tension, once released the fabric would draw up into a honeycomb structure, resembling smocking. It was suggested that cutting or fashioning a garment into a large number of sizes and fittings would no longer be necessary as this method would achieve a one-size-fits-all form. 

Illustration of how Martin White proposed to use Lastex™ yarn in forming the telescopic swimsuit.
Image ref:

Other manufacturers also adopted Lastex™ in a variety of ways, as can be seen in the 1952 advert below, although it was not long before this innovative yarn was superseded. Lycra™, available from the 1960s, was a lightweight polyurethane elastomeric fibre that provided four times the stretch as well as enhanced resistance to oxidation and oil. Lastex™ had been found to lose elasticity as the rubber deteriorated from UV exposure and/or through contact with the chemicals found in suntan lotion and chlorine. 

A range of swimwear manufacturers also used
Lastex™ in their designs.
Image credit:

Luckily, MoDiP’s example is in a very good condition and I particularly love the low cut back, removable straps and side cut-outs that all reflect the trend for sunbathing that was fashionable at that time. 

Martin White telescopic swimsuit, AIBDC : 008463
Image credit: MoDiP

And finally, a glamorous 1946 film clip advertising some of Martin White’s latest telescopic swimwear designs. Note the first two-piece has a rather attractive wrap-over pareo (pāreu) skirt in white plastic! 

You can view the Martin White swimsuit and many more objects exploring the subject of plastics Beside the sea until 3rd December 2021.

Katherine Pell 
Collections Officer

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