You Saw it Here First

When it comes to fashon, California is more proselytizer than creator. Some of the clothing most identified with the Golden State was actually invented elsewhere -- the bikini in France, for instance, or designer jeans in Milan. What California has done without peer, however, is popularize sportswear that is casual yet cutting edge. “It is not French fashion, but it is what people wear,” says Inez Brooks-Myers, curator of costume and textiles at the Oakland Museum of California. “California is a casual place, and we have a lifestyle that people admire and want to emulate.” All that said, Californians do take credit for dreaming up at least a few fashion firsts -- some well known, some surprising and some threaded with a little controversy.


Most everybody knows that Levi Strauss created the first denim blue jeans after arriving in Gold Rush-era San Francisco. But the idea to attach copper rivets on pocket corners--standard on all Levi’s 501 jeans and on many other brands made today--actually belonged to Jacob Davis, a Nevada tailor. A customer complained to Davis that her husband was wearing through his pants too quickly. Davis responded by securing the pockets with copper rivets. Soon, other tailors started copying his design. Davis couldn’t afford the paperwork to patent his idea, nor could he keep up with demand, so he wrote his fabric supplier, Levi Strauss, and suggested they apply for a patent together. Strauss agreed and invited Davis to move to San Francisco to oversee manufacturing of the pants, then called Copper Riveted Waist Overalls. “They were so popular that miners and prospectors would say, ‘Have you heard about these pants coming from Levi’s?’” recounts Jeff Beckman, a company spokesman. “Over time, the name just stuck.”



Some experts credit the U.S. Navy with inventing the T-shirt in 1913. But regulations from that year make it clear that this “light undershirt” was different from what is commonly worn today, with the Navy’s version boasting an “elastic collarette on the neck opening” and other odd features. What we think of as a T really took shape 19 years later when (depending on which version of the story you hear) legendary USC football coach Howard Jones or the school’s athletic director, Bill Hunter, turned to Jockey International Inc. to develop an inexpensive undergarment that would absorb sweat and prevent a football player’s shoulder pads from chafing his skin. Former Times columnist Jack Smith noted that when the jocks wore their T-shirts around campus, the clothes became so popular that coeds started swiping them. To ward off thefts, the words Property of USC were stenciled onto the shirts. This made them even more trendy. The university gave in, selling USC-emblazoned T-shirts at the bookstore.


Early Hawaiian surfers rode in the nude. Later, one-piece wool tank suits became the fashion. By the 1930s, bathing suits that left men bare-chested were the style, but they weren’t practical for surfers. They needed a longer leg to prevent abrasions when straddling their boards, a baggier trunk so that they could move easily, a sturdy material that would wear well, and a closure that would keep their trunks on when they wiped out. Most fashion aficionados agree that surf trunks, better known today by the Australian term board shorts, are a Southern California invention--though pinning down exactly who and where is tricky. Matt Warshaw, author of “The Encyclopedia of Surfing,” credits surfboard maker Dale Velzy and his buddies at the Manhattan Beach Surf Club with creating a surf trunk in the ‘40s when they cut off their white sailor pants just above the knee. But Warshaw notes this was part of a long-evolving trend. “In the 1930s and ‘40s,” Warshaw says, “surfers would make their own trunks, or ask their girlfriend or mom or a seamstress” to do so.


Shorter than a Capri and with a slightly wider leg, the pedal pusher was created by DeDe Johnson. Her motivation was at least partly practical: The L.A. designer wanted to help ensure that a lady’s skirts wouldn’t get caught in her bicycle chain. Johnson is credited with several other fashion firsts, including the divided skirt and clam diggers. But it was the pedal pusher that took off in the ‘50s after it was worn by teen idols Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello, as well as by Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. Johnson is counted among those California apparel makers who helped popularize sportswear nationally. “They took advantage of our year-round good weather and our suburban lifestyle to create clothing that was light, easy to wash, easy to care for and fashionable,” says Kaye Spilker, a curator of costume and textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Johnson made a splash in other ways too, once tumbling off the rim of the Grand Canyon, where a fashion show was being held. She landed on a ledge 50 feet below, unhurt.


Hardly revealing enough to turn heads today, the Scandal Suit made headlines in 1964 when it was created by bathing suit designer Margit Fellegi for Cole of California. The suit was made of black nylon knit and had stretch mesh at the midriff connecting the bra top and wide panty bottom. “It suggested nudity without being nude,” says Anne Cole, a bathing suit designer and daughter of Fred Cole, company founder. “Some people found that suggestive.” In fact, black fishnet hadn’t been used in mainstream fashion. “It had connotations from stripper and burlesque-style clubs,” says Kevin L. Jones, costume curator of the museum collections at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. “Using it in a bathing suit was pushing the boundaries, which then pushed it to the forefront--that’s what made it fashionable.” Two other Scandal Suit styles quickly followed, each exposing more skin. “Margit was the real innovator,” Anne Cole says. “My father got all the credit and she did all the work.”