This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Esther Williams, who died in her sleep on June 6 at age 91, didn't aim for movie stardom. She claimed that her success in such films as 1952's synchronized-swimming spectacle Million Dollar Mermaid was a "consolation prize" after World War II derailed her dream of becoming an Olympic swimming champion.
After signing in 1941 with MGM, where she worked with famed costume designer Irene Lentz, the Los Angeles native became not only a romantic comedy star, but a major influence in taking swimsuit style from plain, heavy and modest to pinup-worthy. "She brought high glamour to swimwear with rhinestones and lamé," says vintage clothing expert Doris Raymond of L.A. boutique The Way We Wore.
In 1948, Williams (whose four marriages included a union with actor Fernando Lamas) became a spokeswoman for swim brand Cole of California. After working with founder Fred Cole on a cross-back suit for her 1952 film Skirts Ahoy!, Williams convinced the U.S. Navy to order 50,000 pieces for the women's reserve. Long after her film career fizzled, the mother of three launched a swimsuit line (available on Modcloth.com) in 1989. But her aesthetic is alive and well, with 2013 collections featuring high, ruched waists, metallic finishes and charming prints that would have been at home in her $250,000 MGM soundstage pool.
Adds designer Norma Kamali, who created Farrah Fawcett's iconic red '70s bathing suit, "She showed that the idea of being female and fit and athletic was very possible. Now it's just the most modern way for a woman to be."