The most beautiful gal at Daytona doesn’t sport a bikini. And tattoos? Not for the Red Diving Girl, the nearly 20-foot icon that has adorned Stamie’s swimwear shop at 8 N. Ocean Ave. since the days when the Beatles were new.
A few years ago, I chatted with the shop’s founder, Stamie Kypreos, who grew up in Orlando, where her family moved from Greece when she was 7. (Mrs. Kypreos died in 2010 at the age of 97.) She had married her late husband, Theodore, also in Orlando in 1935. A dozen years later, wen Harry Truman was America’s president, Kypreos opened her shop on Ocean Avenue and began selling swimsuits to ladies and gents.
When I visited her a decade ago, Mrs. Kypreos was 89. She paused during our chat to ask a shopper how she was doing during a dressing-room session of trying on bathing suits. The suits were fine, the shopper replied; it was the body she was trying to fit into them that posed a problem.
How many thousands of times in more than 50 years must Kypreos have heard this kind of fretting. The pounds! The thighs! I’ll never look like . . . Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Twiggy, Cindy Crawford, Halle Berry. . . . The beauty icons have changed, but the quest for the perfect bathing suit remains.
Kypreos took these cellulite dramas in stride. “I love my little place,” Kypreos said.
Diving into history
Outside the shop, which looks the same but was closed on the Sunday when I recently stopped by, the big gal in the red suit just keeps diving, suspended in a perpetual, graceful swoop. This incarnation of her, owned by the Jantzen company of Portland, Ore., is one of only six ever made; few survive. One of the statue’s sisters was once suspended from the ceiling of the American Advertising Museum in Portland, which I’m sad to see closed in 2004. The Red Diving Girl symbol has been around for decades longer; she holds a high place in the history of both advertising and sport. In her day, she was considered a glamour gal as groovy as Grable.
The company that became Jantzen didn’t start out to make bathing suits. John A. Zehntbauer and Carl C. Jantzen founded it in 1910 as the Portland Knitting Co., a business that made sweaters and woolen hosiery. The enterprise sidestroked into the swimwear business when members of the Portland Rowing Club asked it to produce a wool rib-knit rowing suit about 1913. In 1918 its name was changed to the Jantzen Knitting Mills.
Around that time, the pastime of sea bathing — jumping into waves while holding on to a rope attached to an offshore buoy — was being replaced by the sport of swimming. Women needed swimwear that wouldn’t slow them down.
By the early 1920s, Jantzen was in the market, touting its product with the slogan “the Suit that Changed Bathing to Swimming.” Soon, the company was ready for a national sales push, and husband-and-wife artists Frank and Florenz Clark went after an image to use in ads, according to Jantzen archivists.
Florenz Clark went to a Portland amateur athletic club, where she watched women divers training for the 1920 Olympics. Inspired by their grace, she and her husband came up with the image of a woman diver in a red Jantzen suit, soon christened the Red Diving Girl .
In a saucy suit resembling a long tank top, the Diving Girl became something of a craze. In 1922, Jantzen printed 10,000 Red Diving Girl stickers that were distributed in store displays, which people grabbed up to paste on the windshields of their cars. Massachu- setts banned the decals from auto windshields.
Pinups and beach parties
By the 1930s, billboards featuring the work of artist George Petty and others had transformed the Diving Girl into a long-legged, airbrushed dish. The “Petty Girl ” became a popular pinup in the 1930s and 1940s and is said to have been the first centerfold, in Esquire magazine. She didn’t have to worry about her weight, of course; she was an illustration.
In 1959, a mannequin company in Los Angeles transformed the Red Diving Girl , now in an elasticized strapless one-piece, into three dimensions and made six 191/2-foot fiberglass versions of her to be used on signs.
One of the six made its way to Miami and, in 1965, to a happy home at Stamie’s by the World’s Most Famous Beach. She has been there ever since, despite repairs from storm damage in 1980 and the day-to-day toll of humidity and salt air. Her once-white cap is now painted red to match her suit and dainty toenails. A girl must keep up with fashion, after all.