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

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

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

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

“I call mine two pieces,” he said in a 2014 interview with ABC.

Woman wearing bikini on model when photographed.
Paula Stafford modeled in one of the bikinis at Surfers Paradise in the ’60s.(Provided: Alan A Richards, Gold Coast City Library Local Studies Collection)

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

No need to pay for publicity

While he made his first two pieces for personal use, Stafford said “people keep wanting what I wear”.

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

black and white photo of a woman in a shop with a roll of cloth holding a cloth of a woman wearing a bikini in front of a mirror
Miss Teenage Victoria was one of many pageant winners in the 1950s who enjoyed a Surfers Paradise vacation and visited Stafford as part of her prize.(Provided: Alexander McRobbie, Gold Coast City Library Local Studies Collection)

Bikinis rose to prominence in 1952 when a woman wearing a Stafford design was ordered to leave the beach for being disrespectful.

Stafford responded by sending five bikini-clad women to the beach in what became a famous PR stunt.

“That was extraordinary.”

More than a brand

Stafford said swimwear became “an industry” for him, with his business exporting bikinis to London and New York employing at least 50 women and members of their families.

“It grew so fast that we had to build a special factory to place the machines,” Stafford said.

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

Bikini Stafford became synonymous with the Gold Coast at a time when it was considered more of a seaside town.

“It was a lot of work, and time involved, but I enjoyed doing it,” he said.

Paula Stafford
Paula Stafford, who introduced the bikini to Australia, poses with designs on Queensland’s Gold Coast in 2008.(ABC News: Sara Hicks)

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

‘You can’t be sorry’

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

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

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

The old woman with white hair smiled as she sat in front of a colorful dress, with a colorful jacket over her feet.
Australian bikini designer Paula Stafford celebrates her 100th birthday.(Provided: Stafford Family)

Stafford said he let go of the business in the 1990s before it finally dwindled.

“There’s no point looking back and saying ‘I should have done this, I should have done that’. I did what I did and that’s it.

“You can’t be sorry, can you?”

Posted , updated

Leave a Comment