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Short History of Bikinis and Swimsuits

Aug 2, 2008
Sixty years ago this week, the world's first bikinis made their debut at a poolside fashion show in France. This particular swimsuit is now so common that it's hard to understand how shocking people found it at the time. When bikinis arrived, its revealing cut scandalized even French fashion models who were supposed to wear it; the models refused, and the original designer had to enlist strippers! Bikinis slowly gained acceptance?first on the Riviera, then in the United States, and became a beachfront staple. When bikinis were unveiled in the late 1940s, it was not the first time that women had worn revealing garments in public. In the fourth century, for example, Roman gymnasts wore bandeau tops, bikini bottoms, and even anklets that would look perfectly at home on the beaches of California today. At the beginning of the 20th century, though, such displays would have bordered on blasphemy. Female swimmers went to great lengths to conceal themselves at the beach. They wore voluminous bathing costumes and even made use of a peculiar Victorian contraption called the bathing machine, essentially a small wooden or canvas hut on wheels. The bather entered the machine fully dressed and donned her swimming clothes inside. Then, horses pulled the cart into the surf. The bather would disembark on the seaside, where she could take a dip without being observed from the shore. In the decades that followed, the seaside dress code loosened up. In 1907, Australian swimmer and film star Annette Kellerman, an advocate of more hydrodynamic swimwear, was charged with indecent exposure for appearing on Boston's Revere Beach in a form fitting, sleeveless tank suit. The ensuing high-profile legal battle led beaches across the nation to relax swimwear restrictions. By 1915, American women commonly wore one-piece knitted maillots.

Oddly enough, the two-piece swimsuit?which usually consisted of a structured halter top and modest bottom that covered the navel, hips, and derri?re?arrived with much less fanfare than bikinis. By the early '40s, film stars including Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, and Lana Turner were all wearing two-piece swimsuits, and it was seen frequently on American beaches. Why was the skin above the bellybutton so much less controversial than below it? Hollywood's Hays production codes allowed two-piece gowns but prohibited navels on-screen. That meant the rib cage earned a ho-hum reputation, but the bellybutton was terra incognito. In the 1948, as Kelly Killoren Bensimon details in The Bikini Book; attractive women were known as "bombshells," and anything intense was 'atomic.' So, when two Frenchmen independently designed skimpier alternatives to two piece swimsuits in the summer of 1946, both suits got nicknames. The first designer, Jacques Heim, created a tiny suit called the atome. The second, Louis Reard, introduced his design on July 5, four days after the United States had begun atomic testing in the Bikini Atoll. In a rather bold marketing ploy, Reard named his creation 'le bikini', implying it was as momentous an invention as the atom bomb. Thanks to their provocative name and cut, bikinis made international headlines. Photos of Micheline Bernardini, the stripper Reard had enlisted to model it, circulated across the planet. But in the United States, women, including actresses in movies like 1947's My Favorite Brunette and the model on this 1948 cover of Life magazine, stuck with more traditional two piece swimsuits. In 1950, Time interviewed American swimsuit mogul Fred Cole and reported that he had "little but scorn for France's famed Bikinis," because they were designed for diminutive Gallic women. "French girls have short legs," he explained to Time. "Swimsuits have to be hiked up at the sides to make their legs look longer."

Brigitte Bardot's legs, at least, didn't need any such help. A photo was taken at the Cannes Film Festival in 1953, just as the bikinis were becoming common on the French Riviera. Even so, it remained illegal in many States, where it was seen as a suspect garment favored by 'loose moral' Mediterranean types. A few years ago, Sports Illustrated dug up a 1957 issue of Modern Girl that declared: "It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikinis since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing." Just three summers later, though, bikinis had established a beachhead here in the United States. This was in large part because of the increasing popularity of private pools, which gave women a secluded place to test out the new look. A Neiman Marcus buyer classified bikinis as "a big thing" for 1960. Brian Hyland also had a hit that year with the song "Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," which takes on new meaning when you realize the swimsuit was still catching on at the time. No wonder the song's protagonist was "afraid to come out of the water."

Bikinis soon became extremely common. In 1965, a woman told Time it was "almost square" not to wear bikinis, which, given the outlet, suggests she was correct. In 1967 the magazine wrote that "65% of the young set had already gone over." The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue debuted in 1964, with a white bikini on the cover. And the swimsuit's increasing popularity was reinforced by its appearance in contemporary movies like Annette Funicello's How To Stuff a Wild Bikini and Raquel Welch's One Million Years B.C. One of the bikini's earliest and most memorable film roles came in the 1962 Bond film Dr. No. (A journalist who saw an advance screening reported, "Actress Ursula Andress fills wet bikinis as if she were going downwind behind twin spinnakers.")

Bikinis definitely certainly complemented the va-va-voomery of Raquel Welch and her peers, who tended to be busty and a little soft in the middle. (In early bikini shots, stomachs are often evidently sucked in.) But the 1970s saw the rise of models like Cheryl Tiegs, who possessed the athletic figure that, for the most part, remains in vogue today. The advent of this lean ideal led many women to wonder: Who, exactly, should wear bikinis? In the 1960s, Emily Post decreed, "It is for perfect figures only, and for the very young." Since then, though, a number of bikini designers (most notably Malia Mills) have encouraged women of all ages and body types to take up the style. Bensimon's lively Bikini Book splits the difference on this question. In one Q&A, the author asks venerated swimwear designer Norma Kamali who shouldn't wear the bikini. She responds, "Anyone with a tummy." Eighty-odd pages later, though, professional beach volleyballer Gabrielle Reece (who competes in a bikini) declares that "confidence" alone can make the bikinis sexy. Easy for her to say. Today, you have to wonder whether thong bikinis, which first appeared in Brazil in the 1970s but has since made scant inroads here, will ever become common on American beaches. Never, you say? It's a suspect garment favored by licentious Latin types? Exactly what Americans used to think about bikinis. Whether or not the thong ever makes it out of the lingerie drawer, though, bikinis are here to stay.
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