Paula Stafford Bikini

Contributed by: Manly Art Gallery & Museum

Paula Stafford Bikini at Manly Museum and Art Gallery.
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Manly Art Gallery & Museum
  • Date range:

    1950 - 1960
  • Place of origin:

    Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia
  • Gender:

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Object information

Significance statement

Australian designer, Paula Stafford, has been credited with introducing the bikini to Queensland in 1952. This two-piece swimsuit designed by Stafford is significant in its reflection of developments in Australian as well as international swimwear design that conflicted with traditional cultural practice.

The success of Stafford's collections can be attributed to her utilisation of the media who were in frenzy over innovative beachwear design that contested conservative social morality standards.

After a controversial appearance in a sarong style Stafford bikini by model Ann Ferguson on Main Beach, Queensland in 1952, the designer immediately jumped at the media opportunity the bikini sensation had generated. Returning to the beach the following day, Stafford created and displayed five models in her own collection and invited authorities, including the mayor and the chief of police who both approved the designs for future wear on the local beach. A re-enactment of the display was then recorded and distributed around the country on newsreel, entitled 'Beach Inspectors Battle of Bikinis'. The media had sparked an interest in the designer who went on to open a warehouse employing over 50 workers thanks to the maximised sales.

Despite initial authority backlash, Stafford's designs became the height of chic beach wear during the 1950s in Australia. Her annual fashion parades in Sydney, known as the 'fashion fiestas', became the social event of the season for young women and production rates continued to increase over the decade. Despite the inability to wear the design on most Australian beaches and continuing criticism from authorities, Stafford's success mounted.

Opening a walk-in boutique as well as offering a made-to-order service, Paula Stafford's clientele continued to expand over the years, distributing through a range of department stores such as David Jones and Georges in Melbourne. Since then, the Stafford bikini has become synonymous with women's liberation and contributed to the branding of Australian culture, inspiring a fashion trend for generations to come.

Author: Eilysh Toose, November 2012.


Paula's reversible design is credited as the worlds first; the cotton bikini enabled the wearer to choose between a plain orange design or an orange, green and yellow print.

The bandeau style top is supported by vertical boning at the bust and ties at the back with the length of the double sided fabric. There is a cord at the centre front to hold the bandeau up from the centre when tied around the neck. Other support includes evidence of a missing halter neck strap as the right side has a loop for fastening the missing strap above the boning. The left side loop has been detached as a gap in the stitching is evident.

The fastenings on the bottom piece include a heavy metal zip at the centre back. Since the bikini has been worn, one might think this zipper would corrode with chlorine or salt, but it remains in good condition. This may suggest the garment hasn't been regularly worn in water. Above the zipper is an orange button and loop fastening. Around the top edge of the high waisted brief is an elastic insert as well as around each leg hole.

History and Provenance

Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

Regarded as Australia's first local designer of the bikini, Paula Stafford began her career selling her creations out of her own house - a kiosk at Southport Beach, Queensland. Unlike the two-piece of the 1940s, where designs covered almost the entire waist, Stafford's bikini began with a revealing three inch deep measurement at the hip. As the public developed a taste for the new design, the definition of a bikini later became a mere one inch deep. They were reversible so you were buying 2 for 1.

Since its first appearance on October 11, 1945 in Sydney's George Street, the bikini has become an icon of surf culture and women's liberation in Australia. From immediate negative connotations to a symbol of bravery and psychology of women through fashion, this symbol of femininity has endured for over 60 years.

Paula Stafford made her bikinis really famous in 1952 when bikini wearing model, Ann Ferguson, was told to leave Main Beach on the Gold Coast. Stafford made 5 more bikinis and gathered 5 beauties to appear at the same place the next day. She invited the police chief, the mayor and of course, the press. 'From then on anything brief could be worn' said Stafford.

Despite being ordered off the beach at Dee Why, Clovelly, Coogee, Manly and Bondi, women bought bikinis in their thousands. Happy manufacturers were assisted by the media hype. Destinations that flaunted the costume like Surfers Paradise, on the Gold Coast, became flooded with bikinis.

The introduction of Meter Maids on Queensland's Gold Coast in 1965 was a tourism masterstroke. Gorgeous gold bikini clad women strolled along the tourist strip feeding coins into expired meters. Meter Maids attracted national and international exposure, becoming one of the Gold Coast's greatest gimmicks that continues today.

Eylish Toole & Lindie Ward

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

French engineer, Louis Reard, introduced the bikini, or French swimsuit, in 1945 to shock and disbelief for onlookers only recently accustomed to the two piece swimsuit. So slight that it slipped through a wedding ring, the bikini successfully highlighted the feminine features it aimed to cover by its scant structure. Its appearance generated as much social impact as the explosion of the atom bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1946. 

After the war, a new generation of beachgoers looking for a healthy glow, flocked to the surf and the range of designs soon multiplied. These designs contrasted with the heavy woollen drapery which when wet, literally claimed lives. Iconic Australian swimmer, Annette Kellerman, compared it to having the biblical mill-stone tied around one's neck'. Kellerman was our first female to scandalise beachgoers in 1908, when she wore a man's one piece bathing suit that exposed her thighs, at Revere Beach near Boston, Massachusetts. Arrested for indecent exposure, Kellerman then adopted a modified design with full length stockings. The scandal brought media attention to her advocacy of physical fitness for women. So began the era of swimming costumes that would change beach culture forever.

The precursor to the bikini appeared in the 1940s, a two-piece costume featuring top and shorts with a mximum three inches of flesh visible at the waist. Reard chose the era of rationing and necessity to make do, to justify his bikini, above all aimed to shock, with the appearance of the bare navel and stomach for the first time.

Bikinis highlighted the battle between women's rights and the ultra conservatives. During the 50s, publications showcased bikini clad models in provocative poses on racy magazine covers and cheap novels. The bikini fast became synonymous with scandal and indecency. Even Kellerman did not approve.

Manly soon supported the right of women to wear the two-piece costume. President of the Chamber at the time, Mr L. H. Peachey wanted to bring Manly in line with dress standards across Europe. Other Sydney hotspots like Bondi were still encountering conflicts in the late 50s where authorities continued to challenge indecency, yet by the early 1960's women had achieved the freedom to wear whatever they liked.

By 1956 the bikini had found its way onto the big screen in movies such as 'And God Created Women' inspiring women internationally.

Eylish Toole & Lindie Ward

  1. Place of origin:

    Surfers Paradise, Queensland, Australia

  2. Place:

    'Tog Shop'

  3. Designed by:

    Paula Stafford

Fibre / Weave

Plain weave cotton

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye



The makers label is found on outside of the right bandeau cup in proximity to the wearers underarm. Printed in red ink it reads:

GENUINE Paula Stafford


made to our measure



  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other


  1. Bias
  2. Straight


  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring

Stiffening / Lining / Padding

Vertical nylon boning is used to keep the bust shape.


bottom top
Neck 435 mm
Chest 1100 mm
Waist 565 mm
Hip 815 mm
Front neck to hem 130 mm
Outside leg 150 mm
Convert to inches


The neck measurement refers to the length of the halterneck cording at the centre front.

Chest measurement includes the entire length of the bandeau when laid flat. An indication of where the wearer had tied the straps is evident and their personal chest measurement was roughly 800mm.

The 'Front neck to hem' measurement refers to the maximum length of the centre front cup length.


The waist to crotch seam measures to 270mm on the front side, and 280mm from the back waist to seam.

Additional material

Other related objects

For more examples of Stafford bikinis, there are two similar items at the Manly Museum and Art Gallery. As icons of our Australian beach culture the museum at Manly displayed the reversible design in the exhibition 'On the Beach: Gems from the Manly swimwear collection'. in 2012/3.

One of the pieces at the Manly Museum and Art Gallery is similar in design to this example of a Stafford bikini with a bandeau style top tied at the centre front with a cord and removable halter neck strap. Unlike this bikini the halter neck support includes a metal fastening, yet they appear to be similar in shape and are likely to be around the same time of production. As most of Paula's designs were made to measure at this time, differences in size and shape are indicative of the variation in customers body frames and how individual these designs really were to their owners.

The example at Manly also reveals a trend of Paula's to make the bikinis reversible. One side of the swimsuit is a plain fabric while the other is a colourful pattern. As you can see from the image above, the Manly example shows a peek of the bright orange opposite the blue and white stripe.



  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor
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