The days are longer, the temperatures are rising, and our air conditioners are running on full blast – the dog days of summer are here! To stay cool, many of us will spend lazy days by the pool or on the beach wearing our favorite bathing suit. This seemingly simple ensemble transformed in the mid-twentieth century from utilitarian garment to fashionable statement piece. Our exhibition Sun-Drenched Style focused on prominent California women designers, including a true innovator in the world of swimwear: Margit Fellegi, Cole of California’s Head Designer from 1936 to 1972.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the nationwide demand for sportswear helped put California’s fashion industry firmly on the map. With its year-round access to pools and beaches, swimwear was a natural fit for the golden state. Fred Cole, founder of Cole of California, understood that American women wanted sex appeal in their swimwear, and under his direction the vogue for fashion swimsuits grew – particularly when Hollywood embraced the trend. It became de riguer for young starlets to pose in their pin-up suits for studio promotional shots. The swimwear industry capitalized on California’s color and energy, popularizing everything from metallic lames to exotic jungle prints.
Margit Fellegi with Fred Cole
Though Cole of California is celebrated in the swimwear industry, Margit Fellegi is largely unknown today. The talented designer spent her entire career working under a corporate label, though she was often named in advertisements and recognized for her achievements on behalf of the brand. Fellegi was born in St. Louis, Missouri to Hungarian immigrants. She studied art at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, and was also a successful dancer – her introduction to design was through making her own stage costumes. Early in her career she opened a custom film costume design studio in Beverly Hills, but in 1936 she was poached by Fred Cole, head of Cole Knitting Mills (later named Cole of California) to be his Head of Design for the company.
Swoon suit advertisement in California Stylist, 1944
Margit Fellegi for Cole of California c. 1939, Gift of FIDM
In her nearly four decades of designing for Cole, Fellegi was responsible for a remarkable number of swimwear innovations. The industry had a reputation for being on the cutting edge of technology, and Fellegi was a master of experimental textiles. Throughout her career, she filed several government patents for her pioneering designs. In 1938 she created Matletex fabric, cotton that was warp-woven with Lastex to give the fabric a subtle stretch. During the war years, the Cole of California mill was converted to a parachute factory; Fellegi continued to work on a limited number of designs, including the 1943 Swoon Suit, a two-piece suit that used side-laces to compensate for the lack of rubber. The suit featured in Sun-Drenched Style is a precursor to this style with its lace-up front. Her sexy 1964 Scandal Suit made waves with its dramatic plunging neckline that Fellegi covered with a stretch fishnet of her own making.
Esther Williams Suit pictured in California Stylist, January 1949
Drape Suit pictured in California Stylist, January 1949
Though Cole of California was always associated with Hollywood and glamour, Fellegi also understood the need to combine fashion with unconstrained movement. Perhaps her history as a dancer and costume designer helped her achieve this balance. For example, her 1948 Esther Williams suit offered practical yet stylish designs for serious swimmers. Cole’s 1949 asymmetrical drape suit claimed to have construction equal to that of a couture gown – giving women structural support with the comfort of a bathing suit (predating the company’s collaboration with Christian Dior by six years). Fellegi’s own observation on design summarized it best: “After all, swimwear is worn at leisure time. It must be comfortable. It must make you feel good as well as look attractive. And it must look just as well from the back, otherwise you just have a strange wiggle waggle.”
Accounts of Fellegi paint her as a tiny dynamo - small in stature, but a whirlwind of ideas and positive energy. Her busy home life raising four children with husband Aladar Laszlo, a successful playwright, provided inspiration for Cole's popular children's and pre-teen lines. A true design original, Fellegi set a fashion-forward standard for the American swimwear industry.