Through The Decades


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In 1910, Portland Knitting Company began in downtown Portland, Oregon, with a few hand-knitting machines above a tiny retail store. Little did founders Carl Jantzen, Roy and John Zehntbauer know that they would achieve both fame and controversy as swimwear pioneers. Producing a wool suit for a rowing team they began offering "bathing suits" in their catalog. Knit on sweater cuff machines, the suits became popular with swimmers. The demand increased for those "Jantzens" and the company name was changed in 1918 to Jantzen Knitting Mills. The suits were made of 100% pure virgin wool. Matching stockings and stocking cap completed the costume of the day. Early advertisements guaranteed the famous rib-stitch "gives that wonderful fit".


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A national advertising campaign included billboards in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Cutouts and decals of the red Diving Girl appeared on windshields of automobiles across the country. Sales during the decade spread throughout Europe, the Americas and Asia. The red Diving Girl icon had become an international symbol. The Jantzen Swimming Association sponsored swimming education and clean water programs across the country. Endorsements by celebrities began with 1924 Olympic Games champions Johnny Weismuller and Duke Kahanamoku of Hawaii. Fashion became increasingly important. "Color Harmony," a range of colors and color combinations, was introduced to suit the coloration of every swimmer.


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Jantzen catalogs featured upcoming movie stars, including Loretta Young, Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers, and Dick Powell. National magazines such as Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Colliers published advertisements illustrated by George Petty, who became famous for his air-brush depictions of handsome men and shapely women. Jantzen's philosophy of flattering the female form defined the company. In 1931, the introduction of the "Shouldaire" allowed strap-free tanning. An internal drawstring above the bustline allowed the shoulder straps to be dropped. The concept of "Molded Fit" defined the bustline. Lastex, a rubberized yarn, was blended into the fabric to allow better give to the suit. Synthetics, such as rayon, appeared with cotton or silk. Later in the decade, woven patterned fabrics in many color combinations made their debut.


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Business perked up in 1941 after Jantzen added sweaters, foundations (girdles) and active sportswear to its basic line. In December of that year, the attack on Pearl Harbor changed the economic picture through 1945. Production of civilian goods declined while military orders increased. Military items produced by Jantzen included sweaters, swim trunks, sleeping bags, gas mask carriers, and parachutes. With the war's end, the company stressed new styling by nationally known designers such as Louella Ballerino. Nylon was a preferred fabric. The bikini introduced in France in 1946, set the style for brevity in swimwear and became a worldwide fashion classic.


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The 1950s saw the expansion of highways, auto transport and air travel. Greater mobility allowed Americans to venture out to the beaches, lakes and parks for entertainment and relaxation. Florida was popular with vacationers and water sports enthusiasts. Swimwear and casual wear sales were high. Combinations of fibers and quick dry synthetics were a favorite. The late '50s saw the introduction of commercial jet airliners, which made visits to exotic locations practical for many. Construction of swimming facilities expanded. Jantzen, with its licensees and design studios in some eighteen countries around the globe, provided a great variety of styles and fabrics from its international affiliates.


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The new Jantzen advertising campaign titled "Just Wear a Smile and a Jantzen" took the country by storm. Sponsors like Kodak, Ford Motor Company and United Airlines invited "Smile Contest" winners from each state to an annual contest in the Hawaiian Islands. Top contestants were featured in national advertising campaigns. The surfing scene came to life with the music of the Beach Boys. Swimsuits ranged from the popular bikini to the more conventional maillots. Fabrics included knits and wovens in quick-drying synthetics. Natural fibers were often blended with man-made yarns. Innovation in design and styling was a hallmark of the decade.


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The 1970s saw the continuation of social changes with advances in civil rights and increased emphasis on womens' issues. More women entered the workforce. Jantzen recognized that the working woman wanted attractive beachwear for weekends and vacations. As some resort areas called for dressier attire, accessories became important. Swim separates, cover-ups, full-length beach skirts and caftans completed many swimsuit ensembles. Colors were vivid! Bright, floral prints and patterns continued to be fashionable. .


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Swimwear fashions became more sophisticated, with the resurgence of the maillot (pronounced "my-oh" and often spelled "mio"). Variations included the bandeau maillot (which was strapless), the high-neck maillot, the V-plunge maillot and other styles. Fabrics contained nylon and spandex, for stretch that holds its shape. A mitered V pattern became popular; colors were bold and eye-catching. Jantzen introduced a Trikini, combining a string bikini worn underneath a lacy, semi-transparent maillot. Conventional tank suits also featured the transparent effect.


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Jantzen e-commerce offered convenience to the customer as well as brand benefits. Suits with "engineered prints" featured pattern and colors strategically placed to enhance the figure. The Jantzen power bra proclaimed "It Must Be Magic" and gained notoriety as a spectacular billboard display in Times Square. Jantzen continued its Clean Water program throughout the decade, which first began in 1926. Wanting to encourage clean and healthy environments for swimming, the company rededicated itself to this proud heritage and to "Keep Our Beaches Beautiful."


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In 2002, Perry Ellis International purchased the Jantzen brand. The new millennium saw a continuation of the technological revolution and a massive change in communication options. Cell phones became commonplace and many homes acquired a computer, fax machine and scanner. Jantzen hired top supermodel Carolyn Murphy to endorse the brand and feature in the ad campaign. Carolyn's timeless glamour was perfectly suited for Jantzen. Her classic American style elevated the brand image and consumer recognition through a diversified marketing strategy. The Jantzen brand today is a leader in the swimwear arena, portraying a new inspirational brand vision that remains steeped in the Jantzen legacy.


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Reminiscent of the glamorous 1950s classic bathing beauties, we pay homage to this timeless era with modern interpretations. Jantzen has achieved new levels of success this decade through social media, attracting thousands of fans around the world who share their own memories about their favorite Jantzen suits throughout the decades.

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