Style Icon: Esther Williams, ‘The Million Dollar Mermaid’

Esther Williams Image via Listal

UPDATE (6/6/2013) – When this was originally posted in 2011, Esther was 89-years-young and working just as hard as ever. We’re saddened to hear of her recent passing, but we will continue to be inspired by her enduring spirit and style forever! — ModCloth

Esther Williams is a woman who really made a splash. We love her ravishingly retro swimsuit line, but we’re also inspired by her supremely successful life. Besides donning a swim cap as a pro athlete, this all-around icon was also a movie star, singer, dancer, businesswoman, and swimwear designer. And at age 89, she’s as enchanting as ever!

Dive in to read more about how ‘The Million Dollar Mermaid’ made waves in the realms of sport, film, and fashion…

Esther WilliamsImages via Listal (left and right)

Born in Los Angeles in 1921, Williams began swimming in her early teens. A natural athlete, she went on to win numerous national competitions, just missing an opportunity to compete in the 1940 Olympic Games, because of its cancellation due to World War II.

Her athletic prowess and star quality garnered enough attention that she soon found herself in front of the camera. Her first foray into the performing arts was swimming and starring in Billy Rose’s “Aquacade,” a glitzy theatrical production. Not long after, she landed a contract with MGM Studios and rode a wave of success.

Since her debut in 1942’s Andy Hardy’s Double Life, most of Williams’ films featured elaborate pool sets, musical numbers, and spectacular synchronized swimming routines. Have a look at the trailer for 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid to see her in aquatic action.


In the late 1940s, Williams endorsed swimwear for Cole of California in a series of print ads, one of the first examples of celebrity testimonials in advertising. Having worn extravagant suits made of sequins, flannel, and other impractical materials in her films, she embraced the idea of a more ‘suitable’ suit for waterborne women.

Esther-Williams-3Ad by Cole of California from 1949 via Vintage Ad Browser. Right image via Listal.

So, after bidding farewell to acting after 1963, Williams went on to establish her own line of stylish and sporty swimsuits – even a line of backyard swimming pools and pool equipment. Her suits flatter every body type, ensure practical performance, and maintain elegance and classic glamour. With lowcut legs and highcut halter tops, her suits are spectacular and timeless.


In an article for Women’s Wear Daily, she said, “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. 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.”

We salute Esther Williams for her influential and swimmingly successful career! Do you own one of her sensational suits? If so, how does it make you feel, both in and out of water?


About Cindy

Pun intended. Cindy loves dreaming up witty quips and groan-worthy wordplay. In fact, you could say this girl just wants to have puns. As an avid fan of the written word and a librarian at heart, she also loves used bookstores, especially ones that harbor cats. A lover of all things old, she takes every opportunity to nerd out on nostalgia.

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  1. Avatar
    Heather 07/13/2011 at 1:20 pm #

    What a fun, inspirational post! I have a red polka dot Ether Williams one piece, and it makes me feel fantastic! It’s the only suit I’ll wear. I love her quote about not undressing women at the beach; it’s so true! I have a fantastic time in my suit, but some people just look uncomfortable at the beach. I can’t wait to get one of her two pieces!

  2. Avatar
    Sunday Crossbow 07/13/2011 at 4:45 pm #

    In spite of shape or size, my favorite swimsuit is my one-piece retro black suit that reminds me of this look. You can’t go wrong with the classics.

  3. Avatar
    Kelly 07/13/2011 at 7:47 pm #

    AND the Million Dollar Mermaid was inspired by Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman who is just as interesting (if not more) than the movie star …

    What an excellent idea! I can only imagine how fashion starved alot of small town girls are & to see your pink caravan roll into town must be quite a treat (or it will be). Surely you can get a grant of some funding for your idea???

    Kelly @
    Elegantly Academic

  4. Avatar
    Kelly 07/13/2011 at 7:49 pm #

    Apologises … accidently pasted a comment I was having issues with posting this morning
    *hides ambarrassed face* …

  5. Avatar
    Rebecca Jean 07/13/2011 at 8:31 pm #

    I recently did a blog post about my Esther Williams suit I purchased from ModCloth. All I have to say is that it is the best suit I have ever owned. I adore it! Esther really knows how to flatter the female form.

  6. Avatar
    C 07/14/2011 at 9:31 am #

    I have the black one-piece. It’s so cliche, but it does make me feel like a movie star, think “Some Like It Hot”. I love that it’s modest. I love that it’s classic. I love that it’s made in the US. Finding out about how amazing Esther Williams is just makes it better.

  7. Avatar
    Schyler 07/17/2011 at 8:58 pm #

    Esther Williams is my all time favorite classic movie star, she had such a hard life, the most unimaginable things happened to her, and yet she always came out strong, probably my biggest role model, he autobiography is fantastic, I picked it up not knowing almost anything about her, and I’m so happy I did too, she’s absolutly fantastic and one of the most beautiful women ever

  8. Avatar
    Jennavere 06/07/2013 at 6:14 am #

    My first modcloth purchase– an Esther Williams two-piece swimsuit– just arrived in the mail yesterday. As a swimmer myself, this seems only too appropriate. I look forward to honoring her memory this summer in my new suit! Maybe I’ll even pick up her autobiography to read as I catch some rays…

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