Paula Stafford, the iconic Gold Coast designer who brought the bikini to Australia, dies aged 102

Iconic Gold Coast fashion designer Paula Stafford, who introduced the bikini to Australia, has died aged 102.

Stafford’s fashion empire included swimwear, day and evening wear and menswear, and by 1964 it was the second largest industry on the Gold Coast behind sand mining.

But when she cut her first one-piece swimsuit in half, Stafford said she hadn’t even “heard the name ‘bikini'”.

“I called mine a two-piece,” she said in a 2014 interview with the ABC.

Paula Stafford with a model wearing one of her bikinis at Surfers Paradise in the 1960s.(Provided: Alan A Richards, Gold Coast City Libraries Local Studies Collection)

While the bikini was invented in 1946 by Frenchman Louis Réard, Stafford popularized the then-controversial swimsuit design and put the Gold Coast on the map in the process.

No need to pay for advertising

While making her first two-piece for personal use, Stafford said “people kept wanting what I was wearing.”

“So I decided it might be a good idea to have some extra income,” she said.

black and white photo of woman in store with rolls of fabric holding fabric to woman wearing bikini in front of mirror
Miss Teenage Victoria was one of many pageant winners in the 1950s who enjoyed a holiday in Surfers Paradise and a visit to Stafford as part of her prize.(Provided: Alexander McRobbie, Gold Coast City Libraries Local Studies Collection)

The bikini came to prominence in 1952 when a woman wearing a Stafford model was ordered off a beach for being immodest.

Stafford responded by sending five women wearing his bikinis to the beach in what became an infamous publicity stunt.

“It was pretty amazing.”

More than a brand

Stafford said swimwear had become “an industry” for her, with her business exporting bikinis to London and New York employing at least 50 women and her family members.

“It grew so quickly that we had to build a special factory to put the machines in,” Stafford said.

While his business started with just four machines, it ended with more than 40.

The Stafford bikini became synonymous with the Gold Coast at a time when the town was seen more as a beach town.

“It was a lot of work and time, but I was happy to do it,” she said.

Paula Stafford
Paula Stafford, credited with introducing the bikini to Australia, poses with a design on Queensland’s Gold Coast in 2008.(ABC News: Sara Hicks)

Lydia Pearson of popular Queensland fashion brand Easton Pearson told the ABC in 2020 that Stafford was a pioneer in the Australian industry.

“You Can’t Have Any Regrets”

Stafford was born in 1920 and studied maths, chemistry and physics at Melbourne Girls Grammar.

While she wanted to become an architect, Stafford said the principal advised her to pursue a “more feminine” career.

“That’s why the dress design came into play,” she said.

An elderly woman with white hair smiles as she sits in front of a colorful dress, with a colorful jacket over her legs.
Australian bikini designer Paula Stafford celebrates her 100th birthday.(Provided: The Stafford family)

Stafford said she quit the business in the 1990s before it eventually went downhill.

“It’s not good to look back and say ‘I should have done this, I should have done that’. I did what I did and that’s it.

“You can’t have any regrets, can you?”

About Carl Schroeder

Check Also

From Screen to Store: Husker Study Shows ’30s Nebraskans Embraced Movie Fashion | Nebraska today

By the end of “Gone with the Wind,” Rhett Butler didn’t care about Scarlett O’Hara, …