A “Brief” Summer at NRF and the Swimsuits That Spoke to Me

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During the sweltering summer months, I was lucky enough to be working in a refrigerator- a clothing refrigerator – hidden away in what was the servants’ quarters on the third floor of Rough Point Museum. Even though the climate-controlled textile collection storage lacks the never-ending ocean view that Rough Point is so famous for, it contains multitudes of other wonders – specifically the fashionable clothing of Doris Duke.

I felt like I had been working alongside Doris this summer, aiding her in organizing her prized possessions, stored carefully to extend their lives well beyond hers. I became accustomed to her style: she was practical but fun, stylish but unique. I was also introduced to all of her favorite designers and makers: Halston, Tina Leser, Taj of India, Star of Siam, Dior, and my personal favorite, surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli [i].

Schiaparelli and Doris seem like a match made in heaven. Both were extremely intelligent women who actively rejected the status quo in the quest for their own kind of life and maintained a good sense of humor. For these reasons, it makes sense that Doris had acquired some of Schiaparelli’s more practical designs, swimsuits.

I learned that when Doris liked something, she bought it in every possible color. Specifically, Doris owned three different colors of Schiaparelli’s “Briefer” swimsuit: green, black, and a rainbow-striped print. This design was a collaboration between Schiaparelli and the swimwear brand Catalina that consisted of a convertible two-piece seersucker bikini set that was adjustable for swimming or tanning (See Figure 1). This design gives the wearer options of how high-waisted the bottoms were, and if their top had straps or not (See Figures 2 and 3). This ingenuity was perfect for Doris’ lifestyle, providing coverage and comfort when she was catching some waves surfing, but also some stylish tanning abilities when relaxing on the beaches of Hawai’i.

A sweet and humorous detail on two of the three swimsuits is patches of Schiaparelli’s reinterpretation of the Catalina Swimwear logo, a flying fish [ii]. The first iteration of these swimsuits and the interpretation of the logo was seen in 1948 as the “Official Swim Suit of the Atlantic City Miss America Pageant” before the suits made it to mass production [iii]. The designs on the suits in Doris’ closet have a bit more whimsy to them, with a flying minnow on one of the suits. I like to think that these fun flying fish were part of why she purchased these glamorous swimsuits.

Even though these swimsuits are just a small portion of the giant clothing and textile collection that Doris left behind at NRF, they embody who she was, how she operated, and how she presented herself. The fact that this is a mass-produced design, and also a designer item, speaks to her dueling shopping habits of department stores versus couture houses. With all the money in the world, you would think she would only have purchased one-of-a-kind designer items, but she had a humbleness to her. She knew she was not better than a fairly-priced and well-made item of clothing. Although there are many pieces of clothing in this collection that are couture, they are outnumbered by the number of t-shirts, comfortable caftans, eclectic dance costumes, and tourist treasures that she connected with enough to take home, protect, and save.

By Mel Kennelly, University of Rhode Island intern

Melissa Kennelly is a current Graduate student at the University of Rhode Island perusing her master’s degree in Textile History and Conservation. She obtained her Bachelors of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2020, majoring in Apparel Design with a special interest in dress and textile history. Upon graduation into a global pandemic, she realized that she didn’t want to create more clothing for a world that already has more than enough, which is when she started pursuing a career where she could protect the textiles and clothing that already exist through the artforms of conservation and curation.


[i] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elsa-Schiaparelli

[ii] https://catalinaswim.com/pages/about

[iii] https://thevintagetraveler.wordpress.com/2015/05/11/schiaparelli-for-catalina-swimsuit-1949-part-ii/