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Women's one-piece swimsuit designed by Peter O'Sullivan

Date: 1930s
Overall: 771 x 301 x 26 mm, 243.61 g
Medium: Wool, rope
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Gift from Dale O'Sullivan
Object Name: Swimsuit
Object No: 00046756

User Terms

    Peter O'Sullivan was the first Australian to successfully design and manufacture swimwear for export to the United States of America. His maillots (knitted one-piece swimsuits) for women and one-piece swimsuits and trunks for men and boys were manufactured at his Melbourne Botany Knitting Mill in Greville St, Prahran.

    For men he designed a swimsuit with a detachable top that could be unbuttoned to create swimming trunks and then reattached when required for modesty.

    His Black Lance and Seagull Water Fashions were part of a thriving Australian swimwear manufacturing industry in the 1930s. Rival brands included Challenge Racer, Sunkist, Penguin, Golden Fleece, Kookaburra, Top Dog, and Speedo.
    O'Sullivan also designed swimwear for men's and women's lifesaving club teams in the 1930s. During the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening celebration in 1932, marching surf life savers wore Black Lance swimsuits.

    O'Sullivan and won a world patent for the square buckle on the belt that held woollen trunks up. The design was later immortalised as the Superman buckle. O'Sullivan also brought radio and television personality Bob Dyer of Pick-a-Box fame from Tennessee to Australia to model swimsuits.

    SignificanceThese Australian designed and manufactured swimsuits are represent the classic style maillot of 1930s swomen's swimwear fashions with the elegant lines, plunging backs and cross straps. They are an Australian response to an internation fashion trend and draw on nautical detailing with the use of a navy blue colour pallette, white trim and rope straps. They are part of a larger collection held by the Australian National Maritime Museum relating to swimwear designer Peter O'Sullivan which includes samples of men's and women's swimwear from the 1930s, his original swimwear designs, swimwear design patents from rival swimwear manufacturers such as Speedo and Jantzen, sample books, catalogues, advertising brochures and swimwear and leisure wear patterns from Europe and the USA.
    HistoryIn the 1930s swimwear was elegant, streamlined and sparingly adorned. This style complemented the modernist aesthetic for athletic, lean physiques and the fashion for sunbathing which reached a new peak during this decade. European designers such as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli helped to define this new look. It was popularised by Hollywood film stars bringing a sophisticated glamour to beach, pool and cruise liner fashions. The trend proved to be as popular in Australia as it was in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

    Swimwear designers in Australia and abroad created revealing swimsuits incorporating detachable tops for men and low cut backs for women which showed suntans and lean bodies to their best advantage. The result was eye-catching swimsuits which were worn with elegant cover-ups such as kimonos, beach pyjamas, beach coats, parasols, hats and sunglasses. Coco Chanel led the way with flared culotte sailor-style pants worn with cropped bolero tops for women at a time when it was daring for women to wear long pants in public.

    This was a period when life savers ruled supreme on Australian beaches and an athletic, sun tanned body was equated with health and well being. The strappy cutaway designs of 1930s swimwear was made possible by innovations such as Lastex, an elasticised yarn used in swimsuits which ensured they kept their shape in and out of the water. This contrasted to the heavy woollen and cotton jersey knits of earlier decades.

    On the beaches, women's one-piece suits known as maillots imitated the sleek lines of evening dresses of the period with plunging scoop backs and a variety of shoulder strap designs such as halter-neck and cross straps to emphasise the exposed back. Men wore revealing one-piece woollen suits with cutaway panels.

    Public dress codes for beaches and pools were out of step with the revealing swimwear fashions popular during this decade requiring swimmers and sunbathers to cover up when out of the water.

    Peter O'Sullivan (1904 - 1977) began labouring in wheat silos at the age of 14 after leaving his parent's financially strapped farm in Inverell, NSW. He purchased a motorcycle franchise in Gunnedah, then went into car repair in Sydney, service stations and then onto importing and assembling foreign cars. He worked briefly as a trainee manager at Woolworths before switching to swimwear design and manufacture and bought into a partnership in a knitting mill. After WWII he developed a chain of 25 delicatessan's and then moved into real estate in the 1950s purchasing properties in Toorak Rd Melbourne. He also acquired several properties near Melbourne at Woodend and began breeding Murray Grey cattle in 1963. One became the countries largest Murray Grey cattle stud - Cadella Park.

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