Dive Into Portland's Swimsuit History

Portland's Jantzen pioneered the swimsuit. A century later, we're still making a splash.

By Eden Dawn May 26, 2015 Published in the June 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

No, we don’t have California’s sunbaked beaches or Hawaii’s turquoise waves—but a century ago, Portland did launch a swimwear revolution. In 1910, Carl Jantzen founded the Portland Knitting Company with Roy and John Zehntbauer, and in 1913, the Portland Rowing Club asked them to fashion a suit to ward off the Willamette’s early-morning chill. Jantzen devised a 100 percent virgin wool knitted “bathing suit”—complete with matching wool knee socks and stocking cap—the precursor to today’s swimsuit. 

By 1921, the company had changed its name to Jantzen and officially switched its focus from sweaters to swimwear, purchasing three full-page ads in Vogue with a sexy illustrated “diving girl” (top right). The gambit paid off. At its peak in the late 1950s, Jantzen ran 18 design houses worldwide, churning out “International Set” collections, with France’s legendary Hubert de Givenchy contributing designs. 

Though Perry Ellis bought out Jantzen in 2002, Portland’s swimwear legacy survives. In 1999, Pamela Levenson began making suits at home. By 2006 she opened Popina Swimwear (originally Poppi Swim) with her husband, Will. The company now sells selections from Tommy Bahama, Speedo, and (yes!) Jantzen, complementing Popina’s own classic, locally manufactured cuts with extra bust support. 

“Maybe because we cover up 90 percent of the year,” says Levenson, “Portlanders are not prepared to wear the same suits as Miami.” 

Local designers are still trading on our aquatic fashion history. At February’s Fade to Light fashion show, Project Runway winner Michelle Lesniak debuted a spring/summer line including whimsical printed suits, while Hawthorne boutique Altar offers vintage-inspired one- and two-piece suits as part of its new, customizable house line. “Besides what we will have on the sales floor, we are set up to take measurements for our customers and make their suits fit—perfectly,” says Altar’s Cassie Ridgway. 

The revival of those fetching wool socks and cap has yet to catch on, but here’s hoping.

Want more swimspiration? Check out our gallery of perfect swimsuits for any summer activity!

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