1961 was a heady year—in surf history and history at large. JFK was sworn in as the 35th president of the United States of America. “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King was getting major play on the radio, as was “Runaway” by Del Shannon. Dick Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’” launched the surf music craze. Elvis Presley romanticized the easy, laidback Island life in Blue Hawaii. California regular foot Phil Edwards pioneered what would become the world’s most famous surf break: the Banzai Pipeline.
And on a sewing machine in her Santa Ana living room, Carrie Birdwell Mann stitched together the first pair of Birdwell Beach Britches. Did she have any idea that they would make such a splash in the surf world? Probably not. She was just trying to fill a need, make something functional. And she did exactly that. Soon her living room would double as a store—and thus one of the first surf shops. She’d employ her husband and son. Lifeguards loved Birdies. Surfers cross-stepped to the nose and hung ten in them.
Mrs. Birdwell was attuned to all the right stuff. She knew that comfort, quality, and timeless style are the cornerstones of any good piece of clothing, and when it came to nailing the right fabric, she found her answer in the sailboats docked in nearby Newport Beach. The spinnaker materials were lightweight and more durable than canvas. She knew that two-ply would be tough and resist abrasion. She eventually collaborated with an East Coast mill to commission her Birdies-specific fabric, dubbed SurfNyl™. When she got her first big order—100 pairs for a Huntington Beach store—she hired one seamstress and put the rest of her family to work. Over the years, all seven children worked for the company, sweeping floors, making coffee, and running errands. As the business grew, Birdwell took out a regular ad in Surfer magazine. In fact it was Surfer’s ace publisher, Steve Pezman, who came came up with the Birdie motto: “Quality is our gimmick.”
It’s rare to get something right the first time. Mrs. Birdwell managed to do so. The Birdwells worn and loved by surfers in 2021 are a lot like that first pair. And the tenets that she laid down 60 years ago still stand today. The board shorts are handmade in a factory in Santa Ana. Some of the seamstresses have worked for the company for over 40 years. Birdies carry a lifetime guarantee. They last for decades—and like a great pair of jeans or a leather jacket, they get better with age.
March is Women’s History Month. We celebrate women worldwide. And we celebrate Carrie Birdwell Mann.