Women on Waves
California Surf Museum’s Newest Exhibit Delivers a WOW Factor
Australian professional surfer, Stephanie Gilmore
(CSM photo on display)
Marilyn Monroe surfed Malibu in the late 1940s with her Hollywood boyfriend and top surfer at the time, Tom Zahn. Sandra Dee's belly button was not revealed in the film Gidget, reflecting a more conservative era in beach fashion. And in 1964, Linda Merrill was the first female surfer featured on the cover of Surfer Magazine.
Ride your next wave over to California Surf Museum, a priority on anyone's wish list of cultural experiences.
Women on Waves is a powerful, new exhibit at California Surf Museum in Oceanside. As I meandered through the highlighted decades of surfing memorabilia, I was in awe at the scale of female stamina both in and out of the water.
This newest exhibit explores the performance, beach fashion, and feminine mystique in the world of surfing through glimpses in time spanning 300 years. From Hawaiian queens to present-day icons, pioneering female surfers take the liquid stage. Two dozen significant boards, several trophies, a top-notch display of bathing suits, and contest memorabilia help to tell the story of pioneering women on waves.
I recommend allowing yourself time to absorb it all, which may take a couple of hours. Some of the highlights that touched me were women’s fashions, professional organizing in the 1970s, and the enduring spirit of women surfers who surfed through rough beginnings or during times of illness and hardship.
From Wool to Wow
The evolution of styles in bathing suits for women is one of the highlights of this exhibit. Turn-of-the-century beach dress was dictated by Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, and the conservative wool swimsuit—albeit sleeveless—was adorned sometimes with a belt. The long shirts covered swimming pants that reached nearly to the knees. Black wool wasn’t the only choice of color. A catalog advertised women’s suits in sizes 34 to 44 with your choice of colored stripes on a contrasting background.
Wool bathing suit, early 1900s
The first wool-clad female surfers on the mainland and in Hawaii rode waves—in tandem or beside him—with Duke Kahonumuku. He was a five-time Olympic medalist in swimming, and is credited with spreading the aloha of surfing. Enduring itchy-scratchy bathing suits and ridiculously heavy redwood boards, our women surfers of yesterday were determined. I feel puny; a comfortable surfer in neoprene atop a sleek surfboard, often with a cord on bigger days.
By the 1950s, “miracle materials” from War efforts introduced lined cotton suits, stretchy latex, elastics, and waffled nylon. The 1956 film And God Created Woman starred Brigitte Bardot in a stunning bikini. Beach fashions lightened up (and up and up) as we moved through the exhibit.
Fast-forward to the 1970s and 80s and Brazilian tangas appeared, along with string bikinis, tan-through suits, and French cuts with thin straps and low-lying necklines (Jane Fonda’s aerobics movement inspired the low-cut one-piece). While there are bare-it-all designs for women today, surf fashion has become much more functional with technologies in wetsuit designs, rash guards, and board shorts. From wool to wow, our women surfers have worn it all.
My, how the times change...fast-forward to the 1970s and we've leaped from "wool to wow!"
Getting Professionally Organized
Male surfers dominated the scene in contests and in sponsorship money until the mid-1970s. Jericho Poppler and Mary Setterholm collaborated with their surfing peers and organized the first women’s surfing organization (Women’s International Surfing Association) in 1975.
“For the first time, women organized themselves for their own benefit—demanding their own voice, their own place, and equal opportunity.” —Exhibit panel
Some of the notable sponsors of women’s professional surfing were brought aboard by Debbie Meacham in the 1980s. Remember Forenza—a fashion icon from the era? Michelob and Mazda also supported women-specific prize money.
Challenges In and Out of the Water
For the first time, the shark-bitten board of then-13-year old surfer Bethany Hamilton is on display. She was bitten while surfing her local Kauai break by a 15-foot tiger shark in 2003. She lost her entire left arm and survived, despite losing 60% of her blood and undergoing several surgeries. As if surviving something of this horror is not enough to re-arrange your world, Bethany was out of the ocean for only a short time after the shark attack. She returned to surf more soulfully and wins contests, fulfilling dreams she had when paddling with two arms.
Bethany Hamilton not only survived a shark attack, she wins contests today.
Or consider that Mary Ann Hawkins—California’s first surfing female superstar—was sickly as a child. Through swimming lessons offered at the YMCA, she found health and by age 10 she began to win swimming trophies. Often in the water, she also won surfing and paddling events in the late 1930s and early 40s.
There is so much more in women’s surfing history that I could tell. But it’s there for you in the exhibit Women on Waves. California Surf Museum has been preserving our surfing heritage and its cultural impact on the world since its beginnings in 1986.
California Surf Museum is located on Pier View Way in Oceanside. Admission is $3 and children 12 and under are free. The museum now offers “Free Thursdays” with extended hours (10am – 8pm) to coincide with the Thursday Farmers’ Market in Oceanside.