Chances are, if you’re a fan of vintage fashion you’re aware of the Jantzen Red Diving Girl. Seeing her stitched onto a vintage swimsuit could make the difference in the age-old “buy or not to buy” quandary. But where did she come from and why has she become synonymous with quality? Let’s dive in!
To start, let's go back to Portland in 1910 where John and C.R. Zehnthbauer and Carl Jantzen started the Portland Knitting Company. They were a small operation until 1913 when the Portland Rowing Club came to them with a request. They wanted a swim trunk that would stay up without a drawstring and have a similar knit stitch to that of a sweater cuff.
What they ended up creating was a one piece knit leotard like garment that was less than 10 pounds when fully wet. It was obvious from the start that this design had incredible potential and by 1918 the company had changed their name to be the Jantzen Knitting Mills as their focus would become the “bathing suits” that they had created.
In 1920 The Red Diving Girl made her debut on the Jantzen catalogue, she wore her signature red knit bathing suit, a cap and matching stockings. She was designed by Frank and Florenz Clark.The country quickly fell in love with her, cutouts of The Red Diving Girl would appear in car windshields, and she was featured on billboards leading to beaches in San Francisco, Los Angeles and of course Portland.
By 1923 she would appear as a logo on swim suits with the introduction of Jantzen’s new slogan, “The suit that changed bathing to swimming”. By the end of the 1920’s The Red Diving Girl was a recognizable icon throughout North American, Europe, and Asia. And she also lost her red stockings by the end of the decade as they went out of use by real women swimmers.
The 1930’s saw Jantzen’s celebrity endorsements with names like Lorreta Young, Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers, and Dick Powell dawning their Jantzens. We also begin to see the shift to flattering women's silhouettes in the company’s swimwear with the Shouldaire being released in 1931. This would allow strap free tanning with an internal drawstring at the bust to be tightened to keep the suit up without the support of the straps.
For the years leading to 1931 Jantzen had built a reputation of quality and practicality, being the ones to pioneer a garment typically meant you’d be at the best at making it, i.e. Levi’s and jeans. Once 1931 came around though and Jantzen unveiled their Shouldaire style suit we would begin to see a shift in the company to focus on quality garments that flattered.
The Shouldaire was a one piece swimsuit that had an internal drawstring at the bust line which allowed the wearer to slip the shoulder straps down to avoid tan lines and still keep their suit secured. The style was very popular!
The “Molded Fit” would soon become the Jantzen suit calling card. Mixing Lastex, a rubberized yarn, into their suits allowed for more form fitting yet still structured suits.
In the 1940’s the company would go on to expand outside of swimsuits and make sweaters, girdles, as well as a wider variety of active wear.
During WWII Jantzen produced a number of garments for the military including swim trunks and parachutes. After the end of the war the preferred material for Jantzen swimsuits would become nylon.
The 1950’s saw a great expansion for Jantzen with commercial air travel and tropical getaway destinations. Their success and reputation would go one to grow and the name Jantzen and the Red Diving Girl would continue to become a beacon for quality, and flattering, swimwear.
Today Jantzen is still in the swimsuit business and at the start of the 2010’s they began to recreate their most popular swimwear styles throughout their decades of operation with a modern twist. So if you want, you can grab a modern Jantzen one piece…but I would say I'm partial to the styles and construction of the true vintage Jantzen suits and the Red Diving Girl.