For a half-century, the two-piece swimsuit curiously named after a Pacific atoll has been a profitable standard in women’s fashion.
For Latter-day Saint designer Rose Marie Reid, the bikini was a career buster.
In the early 1960s Sister Reid was one of the United States’ most successful businesswomen. Her swimsuit lines defined the burgeoning market, gleaning millions in profits. Hollywood A-listers Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and others modeled her designs. Her swimsuits — showcased in the sand-and-surf flick “Gidget” — allowed women worldwide to enjoy a bit of the “California Way of Life.”
Sister Reid insisted a swimsuit can be both stylish and modest. When the bikini became a trend she held firm to her beliefs.
“I don’t like bikinis,” she stated at the time, “and I don’t want to design for a company that makes them.”
Her corporation, Rose Marie Reid, Inc., would soon be acquired by another company and, true to her word, she left the business.
Such convictions defined the lifelong member who has been called “the most prominent Latter-day Saint woman of her generation.” In 72 years of life she assumed many titles: innovator, designer, entrepreneur, benefactor, missionary and mother.
Sister Reid’s legacy of service and style is celebrated in an ongoing exhibition at Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library entitled “Rose Marie Reid: Glamour By Design.”
The colorful, multimedia display — located in the library’s basement — includes several of Sister Reid’s most famous swimsuit designs while telling the story of a dynamic woman devoted first to her family and faith.
Born in 1906 in Cardston, Alberta, Canada, young Rose Marie Yancey revealed an early aptitude for both business and fashion. At 15 she opened a beauty salon in her home. Her mother, Marie Yancey, was her partner. A short time later she left home for Boise, Idaho, to attend beauty school.
In 1921 she received a bag stuffed with silver dollars after winning a pageant in Idaho. She used the prize to help support her missionary brother, Elvis.
That small yet earnest gift established in Sister Reid a pattern of gospel giving. The BYU exhibition chronicles her generosity, donating money to the Church-owned school and beyond. The profits from her so-called “Relief Society” swimsuit in 1956 were gifted to the Los Angeles California Temple construction fund.
Sister Reid knew sadness and struggle. As told in the exhibition, she had not planned to continue her designing career after becoming a wife and mother to three children. But when her marriage ended in 1946 she found herself alone and in debt. She got to work — developing her swimsuit company by utilizing her faith, work ethic and seamstress skills.
Exhibition curator John Murphy called Sister Reid a woman of great integrity who never allowed business ambitions to get in the way of her religious convictions.
Much of the exhibition focuses on Sister Reid’s missionary work. Her religion was a curiosity in the hyper-competitive fashion and design world. Still, she often shared her testimony with models and business associates.
“Tell everyone you meet that you are a Mormon,” she once told a group of Latter-day students, “and then live it to the utmost of your ability.”
She was also a popular speaker at Church gatherings and, in 1953, delivered a BYU devotional address entitled “How the Gospel Influenced My Life.”
Her gospel testimony and designing skills, according to the exhibition, prepared her for what she considered her most important Church calling. In the late 1950s, President David O. McKay and Relief Society General President Belle Spafford asked her to create standard patterns, sizes and styles for the production of temple garments.
Sister Reid would retire in Provo, Utah. She died in 1978.
“Rose Marie Reid: Glamour By Design” will be on display through the spring of 2016. Visit lib.byu.eduexhibits/rose-marie-reid for more information.
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