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Cole of California - Swimwear Pioneer

Swoon Suit Swimsuit Ad, 1944

The "Swoon Suit" in a 1944 Cole of California ad featured in California Stylist. Note the parachutes in the background.

Besides launching the first apparel-manufacturing business in Los Angeles, another Morris Cohn business venture in Los Angeles led to yet more fashion history. In 1917, F.L. and Joseph W. Drane launched West Coast Knitting Mills at 2615 Fruitland Avenue in Vernon, to make knitted underwear. The firm quickly grew to become the largest knitting mill in the western United States. At some point, Morris Cohn obtained an interest in the company and, by 1921, had become one of its key officers. In 1923, Cohn's son, Frederick “Fred” Cole (1901-1964), came to work at the company. Fred had earlier changed his last name to Cole, during his brief stint as a film actor. He had roles in the silent films “Secrets of the Night” (1924), “The Dangerous Blond” (1924), “Two-Fisted Jones” (1925), and “Daring Days” (1925). His parents, however, did not consider a film acting career as either stable or reputable and Fred was eventually persuaded to work with them at West Coast Knitting Mills.

Fred Cole quickly became bored with men’s underwear. He thought that Hollywood-orient apparel would be more exciting. He saw the success of Los Angeles-based rival, Catalina,* with swimwear (having started making swimwear in 1912). Cole convinced his parents that West Coast Knitting Mills should add their own swimwear line. Women had shown interest in pushing the boundaries of swimwear fashion from the conservative, formless, dark-colored, sex-neutral, minimal-skin-exposure style. Cole also knew, from his own film industry experience, of the growing appeal of Hollywood glamour. In 1925, he introduced his first swimsuit (said to be called the “prohibition suit” or, simply, “Hollywood suit”). It featured a lowered neckline and back and a short skirt that revealed what was then a shocking amount of skin. Competitors such as Catalina and Jantzen in Oregon focused on athletics and sport, but, Cole focused on glamour and sexuality. His swimsuit was a hit. He further innovated by introducing a new burst of color and design and elastic thread woven into the fabric to create a closer fit to highlight a body’s contours. Women in Fred's swimsuits would no longer look boring.

Fred Cole 1926 Swimsuit, Featured 1951

Fred Cole’s 1926 swimsuit, shown in article “Fred Cole Enters,” The Californian, summer 1951, via the Internet Archive

By 1941, with the death of his father, Cole was in full control of West Coast Knitting Mills. He changed the firm’s name to Cole of California. World War II arrived, but the company managed to survive by adding parachutes to their product line. In 1942, Cole’s head designer, Margit Fellegi (a former Hollywood costume-designer who joined the company in 1936), introduced the first side-laced swimsuit. Her design minimized the use of rubber, then subject to wartime restrictions, but the suit became quite popular. It was called the “Swoon Suit,” said to acknowledge male response to the suit.

Cole of California Swimsuit Ad, 1954

Cole of California swimsuits, 1954.

During the 1950s, Cole’s daughter, Anne Cole (1926-2017), joined the family business, who, like her father, previously tried other creative paths. Anne also went on to make a significant mark in swimwear design. Cole of California, however, was eventually sold in 1960. In 1964, Margit Fellegi, still designing for the company, took sexy swimwear to yet another new level with her boundary-crossing “Scandal Suit.” The suit had a deep front V-neck filled with black peek-a-boo mesh and a deep U-back neck.

In 1993, facing bankruptcy, Cole of California was purchased by Authentic Fitness. The company was merged with former rival Catalina, which had also been purchased by Authentic Fitness. Authentic Fitness was subsequently itself later purchased by the conglomerate Warnaco, and, in 2003, both the Cole of California and Catalina brands were sold after Warnaco’s emergence from its own bankruptcy. Both the the Cole of California and Catalina brands are now owned by In Mocean Group, LLC, of New York.

* Established 1907 as Bentz Knitting Mills, also initially making underwear. Later renamed Pacific Knitting Mills. Added swimwear in 1912. Renamed Catalina in 1928.