Eye Candy

When I was younger, I remember reading a snarky fashion admonition that you shouldn't wear a retro trend if you were old enough to have worn it the first time around. Well, it looks like it might be time to reconsider that piece of sartorial wisdom; old fashions from across the 20th century are apparently stampeding back into vogue with a new vengeance. According to an article in last week's New York Times, companies like Halston, Eddie Bauer, Keds and L.L. Bean are feverishly digging through their style archives to see if they can breathe fresh retail life into forgotten items like buck shoes, hunting jackets, retro sneakers and World War II jackets.

This spring, Jantzen launched its "Heritage Collection," which features fetching swimsuits and other pieces of casual apparel adapted and updated from a hundred years of maillots, bandeaux, maxis, cowls and bikinis. Striking boldly away from the less-is-more approach of swimwear, Jantzen's new collection showcases old-fashioned yet figure-enhancing, flaw-concealing details and design elements from decades past: wide straps, low-cut leg openings, front shirring, ruffled skirts.

Hey... I could have tipped them off about those swimsuits.

I recently wrote a book called Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation (w/Elissa Stein)... and while it's received its share of critical and commercial attention, I'd be totally remiss if I didn't mention one distinct part of the book's appeal, and that's "That Bathing Suit." Featured prominently on the cover is an illustration of a pert young blonde wearing a bright red Jantzen swimsuit, circa 1940. While you might want to quibble about the woman's impossibly long legs and distressingly small head, there's no getting around the immediate and overwhelmingly enthusiastic response of 99% of the female readers I've spoken to about that picture. "Oh my God... what a fantastic suit!" is the most common comment, followed by "wow... do they still sell those?" "It's so flattering!" and "Do you think I could find one on eBay?" Not bad for a 70-year old maillot your Great-Aunt Dorothy might have worn before heading off to hear Tommy Dorsey and his boys at the Steel Pier.

The Girl in the Awesome Red Swimsuit (okay, since our book is about menstruation, the cover artist tweaked the color from its original dark maroon to a brighter crimson to remind you of you-know-what) is more than just an eye-grabbing ad for a flattering piece of clothing ("If you Like Smooth curves, you'll love this suit!" assures the original copy.) The illustration itself is also the creation of artist George Petty, who was, along with Alberto Vargas, one of the geniuses of pinup art. His admittedly long-legged and small-headed temptresses (funnily enough, he often used his own daughter as his model) adorned calendars, magazine centerfolds and covers, and were often painted as "nose art" on war planes during World War II. His iconic "Petty Girls" were occasionally used in print ads, too, and to great effect.

Considering how central the role of advertising and corporate imagery has been in the cultural story of menstruation from the advent of commercial pads and tampons a hundred years ago, I was thrilled to see them referenced in such a smart and snappy cover design. And while I have distinctly mixed feelings about the way advertising has been used to shape our sense of our bodies, I still have to hand it to the genius of both George Petty's creations and the forgotten designers of Jantzen, whose work can still draw an enthusiastic response seventy years later.