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 at the age of 102.

Stafford’s fashion empire included swimwear, day and evening wear, and men’s wear, 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 had not 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 in Surfers Paradise in the ’60s.(Supplied: Alan A Richards, City of Gold Coast Libraries Local Studies Collection)

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

No need to pay for advertising

While she made 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 an extra income,” she said.

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

The bikini surged to prominence in 1952 when a women wearing a Stafford design was ordered to leave a beach for being immodest.

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

“It was quite incredible.”

More than a brand

Stafford said swimwear became “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 rapidly that we had to build a special factory in which to put the machines,” Stafford said.

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

The Stafford bikini became synonymous with the Gold Coast at a time the city was considered more of a beachside town.

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

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

Lydia Pearson from famous Queensland fashion label Easton Pearson told the ABC in 2020 that Stafford was a pioneer in the Australia industry.

‘You can’t have 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 headmistress advised her to pursue a “more feminine” career.

“Hence dress design came into the picture,” she said.

Elderly woman with white hair smiles as she sits in front of a colorful dress, with a colorful jacket over her legs.
Aussie bikini designer Paula Stafford celebrating her 100th birthday.(Supplied: The Stafford family)

Stafford said she gave up the business in the 1990s before it eventually diminished.

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

“You can’t have regrets, can you.”

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