Williams The Swimsuit Designer
At the time that Williams first became a star, women's swimsuit design was still in its infancy. Lycra and other stretchable materials had not yet been invented, and wool was still a common swimsuit component. The costume designers at MGM had had little practice in designing swimwear for films, and their results, although creative, were often highly impractical, with sometimes disastrous results. Williams's seventh film, This Time for Keeps, was set on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan, and in keeping with the woodsy theme, Williams's costumer created a swimming suit out of plaid flannel. Flannel, being made of cotton, absorbs tremendous amounts of water, and the saturated swimsuit nearly dragged Williams to the bottom of the pool. In desperation she unzipped the suit and let it fall. Her costume designer, who luckily was poolside, had to cut a hole in the middle of a towel and drape it over Williams's head so she could get out of the pool without exposing herself to the crowds of tourists who had come to watch the filming. After that debacle, Williams participated much more actively in the design process.
In 1948, Williams was asked by designer Cole of California to endorse one of their swimsuits. This suit, one of the first ever to be made with latex, was revolutionary: the stretchable material meant that a zipper was no longer necessary. It also meant that the suit fit better and was more suitable for maneuvering in the water. Cole approached Williams independently of MGM and asked her to endorse the suit. At that time, celebrity endorsements were unheard of: while celebrity images were often used in advertisements, such uses were strictly controlled by the studio, and all profits went to the studio as well. After Williams won her fight with MGM to be allowed to make the deal, she made as much money per year from the endorsement as she did from her contract with MGM. Her success opened the door to the multi-million dollar endorsement deals from which today's athletes now profit.
Williams was also a star saleswoman for the Cole's suit. In 1952, MGM created a patriotic movie titled Skirts Ahoy!, about three young women in the Navy's "Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service" program. MGM worked closely with the Navy on the film, and the Navy asked them to dress their stars—Williams, Joan Evans, and Vivian Blaine—in regulation Navy dress. Williams was appalled when she saw the Navy's regulation women's swimsuit: it was made of a thin, shapeless, see-through cotton which was unflattering and uncomfortable, especially for well-endowed women who needed a suit which would support their bust. Williams managed to get an appointment with the Secretary of the Navy, where she modeled the regulation suit for him. One glimpse of the suit on her was enough to convince him of its faults, and by the end of their conversation, Williams had convinced him to make the Cole's suit the new regulation swimsuit and to order 50,000 of them on the spot.
After her acting career was over, Williams put these design and sales skills to use running her own swimwear company. Now worth $3 million, the Esther Williams Swimsuit Collection produces fashionable, practical suits for women who are not shaped like fashion models. "I have something for [women who do not have perfect bodies], to which I've given a great deal of thought because I'm all for wonderful-looking women." Williams told Marcy Medina of WWD. "I don't undress women at the beach, I dress them so they have a good time. She can throw a volleyball and the whole front of her suit won't fall down."
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