Esther Williams Offers Swimsuits to Lure Mature Women Back in the Water

It happens every spring. The weather warms up. The clothing racks begin to bloom with swimsuits and thoughts turn to that depressing chore: choosing what to wear in the water.

Mature women often find slim pickings. The tops are low-cut, the bottoms are high-cut and a hankie would hide more than some of the suits. Little strings tied together are designed more for perfect bodies in repose than older women who want to go swimming.

Faced with such skimpy choices, some women just stayed out of the water.

Now, the legendary queen of chlorine, Esther Williams, is hoping to nudge these women back into the pool with her new swimsuit line, called the Esther Williams Collection for Misty Swimwear (a division of Los Angeles-based Excelsior Inc.). The collection is available in the county at The Broadway, Bullock’s and May Co.

Unveiled locally at a recent fashion show at Crystal Court’s Broadway, the collection of 96 one- and two-piece suits (ranging in price from $38 to $66) includes some modern full-cut designs and some “retro” (i.e., old-fashioned) looks with shirred midriffs, halter tops and high waists–the kind of styles that kept Williams slick in such aquatic musicals as “Dangerous When Wet” and “Neptune’s Daughter.”

“Women don’t have to be hanging out of their suits like their daughters anymore,” Williams said at The Broadway show. “I’ve been working over a year with Misty on these suits. We went over my scrapbooks and discussed what worked for me and what worked when it was wet.”

Trim and glowing in a royal blue jacket, red blouse and white skirt, Williams told the women watching the slim models that the suits were designed for women of all ages and sizes, as much for the imperfect as the perfect.

“I understand your bodies,” said the veteran of 26 MGM pictures. “I know what will stay put. I know what swimming has done for my life, and I want it to be the same for you. I want you to go in the water.”

Williams, 65, said the two keys to proper fit and structure of her suits are their Lycra fabric and fuller cuts. The suits she wore in her musicals were made of Lycra, and they never inched up or down when they weren’t supposed to, she said. And the fuller cuts are reminiscent of Williams’ bathing beauty movies.

“It was important to me that the styles were wearable for all women,” Williams said. “Not every woman is running to a plastic surgeon or exercising in a gym three times a day.

“We’re working on big bosoms and big hips, for all your problem areas,” she told the women before the show.

“I know you’re going to look at these skinny models and say, ‘Oh, no!’ but remember, (the swimsuits) come in all sizes.”

The collection includes bottoms that can be pulled up to the waist or lowered down to bikini size. Most suits are cut high under the arms to prevent “spillage,” the legs are cut lower to cover up the hips. Many of the one-piece suits have shirring around the midriff or draping across the bodice, which serves as a flattering camouflage for figure flaws.

Williams said she was persuaded to design the line after Irwin Greenblatt, president of Excelsior, conducted a survey and found that the majority of the respondents both remembered her from her movies and wanted more conservative swimsuits.

John Rogoff, senior vice president of Excelsior, said his company surveyed women ages 17 to 65 on their preferences in swimwear. Eighty-eight percent said they prefer one-piece swimsuits with a V-neck and regular-cut legs (cut straight across the leg rather than cut high toward waist) with bra lining and support. The majority also said they prefer suits in solid colors rather than prints.

At the same time, Rogoff said, his company is finding that “more and more women in the 35-to-45 age range are beginning to wear two-piece suits again, as long as there is adequate coverage.”

“They are looking for a conservative suit with some style,” he added. “We have found in our retail sales that a two-piece suit with coverage in the rear and on the sides accounts for 25% of the sales.”

Department store buyers seem to finding the same thing. According to Nordstrom Orange County swimwear buyer Katie Waites, the biggest sellers for young shoppers are the Brazilian- and French-cut suits, which reveal most of the derriere and hip. Older Nordstrom shoppers, however, are flocking to fuller cuts in brighter colors than last year.

Two-piece suits with bottoms that can be raised or lowered were introduced 2 years ago by a small number of swimsuit manufacturers, Waites said. That design and styles with shirring or draping are both extremely popular this year with older buyers, she added.

“This indicates they are looking for a more stylish suit with coverage,” she said.

The trend toward more coverage is consumer evidence that the population is aging, according to the president of Swimwear Industry Manufacturers, a Los Angeles-based trade group.