On July 5, 1946, the world’s first bikini made its debut at a poolside fashion show in Paris. It is now so ubiquitous, it’s difficult to believe how shocking it once was. When the bikini first arrived, its revealing cut scandalized even the French fashion models who were supposed to wear it; they refused, and the designer had to hire strippers instead.
It shouldn’t have been so controversial; the look goes back to ancient times. In the fourth century, Roman female athletes wore tiny tops and bikini bottoms.
During the Victorian era such a thing would have been unthinkable. Female swimmers went to extraordinary lengths to conceal themselves at the beach. They wore voluminous bathing costumes and even made use of a peculiar contraption called a “bathing machine”, essentially a small wooden barrel on wheels. The bather entered the machine fully dressed and donned her swimming clothes inside. Then, horses would pull the cart into the water. The bather would disembark on the seaside, where she would get wet without being observed by the people onshore.
In the decades that followed, the seaside dress code loosened up considerably. In 1907, Australian swimmer and silent-film star Annette Kellerman, an advocate for 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 scandal led beaches across the nation to relax their swimwear restrictions.
After women had been allowed to compete in the Olympics in 1900, Carl Janzten introduced a two-piece bathing costume in 1909 to enhance their performance. It was basically shorts and a tee-shirt but tight-fitting enough to cause much ado. American women commonly wore a one-piece knitted suit.
In the 1930s, in Europe, women start wearing swimwear that revealed a sliver of skin at the waist, and suits shrink in the USA as fabric was rationed during WW II. Hems were shortened, skirts eliminated, and in some cases, they split in two at the waist.
Oddly enough, the two-piece swimsuit which consisted of a structured halter top and modest bottom that covered the bellybutton, hips, and butt arrived with much less fanfare than the bikini. By the early 1940s, film stars including Jane Wyman, Ava Gardner, and Rita Hayworth were wearing the two-piece suits, and they were soon seen on American beaches. The inches of skin above the bellybutton were less controversial than those below it. Hollywood’s Hays Production Code allowed two-piece gowns but prohibited navels in movies. The rib cage was no big deal, but the navel was forbidden.
In the 1940s, gorgeous women were known as “bombshells,” and anything intense was dubbed “atomic”. Two French designers independently designed skimpy alternatives to the two-piece suit in the summer of 1946, and both got nuclear nicknames. One designer, Jacques Heim, created a tiny suit called the “atome”. Louis Réard introduced his design on July 5, four days after the United States had begun atomic testing in the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. In a bold marketing ploy, Réard named his creation “le bikini”, implying it was as momentous an invention as the new A-bomb.
Thanks to its provocative name and daring cut, the bikini made international headlines. Photographs of the stripper Reard hired, Micheline Bernardini, were seen around the world. Yet, in the puritan USA, females stayed with the traditional two-piece. Réard’s suit was made from just 30 inches of fabric.
In 1950, Time magazine interviewed American swimsuit designer Fred Cole who said that he “has little but scorn for France’s famed Bikini bathing suits” because they were designed for small Gallic women. Cole:
“French girls have short legs. Swimsuits have to be hiked up at the sides to make their legs look longer.”
Brigitte Bardot‘s legs didn’t need any help. She was photographed at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, just as the bikini was becoming the thing on the French Riviera. But it still wasn’t seen on the beaches in America, where it was considered something favored by the sexually free Mediterranean types. A 1957 issue of Modern Girl magazine declared:
“It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.”
Beaches across Europe tried to ban bikinis, especially in Catholic countries, but Réard received more than 50,000 fan letters a week and launched an aggressive ad campaign saying:
“It’s not a real bikini unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.”
Yet, by 1960, the bikini had established itself on North American beaches. It started with increasing popularity of private pools, which gave women a secluded place to test out the look. Neiman Marcus department stores classified the bikini as “the big thing” for 1960. Brian Hyland had a Number One 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”.
The bikini soon became ubiquitous. In 1965, Time magazine wrote it was “almost square” not to wear a bikini. 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 films such as How To Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) with Annette Funicello and Raquel Welch‘s One Million Years B.C. (1966) where Welch wears a fur bikini. The ragged, tattered suit she wears on the poster ends up becoming more famous than the actual film and Playboy magazine’s “Most Desired Woman in the World”.
One of the bikini’s earliest and most memorable film roles is in the James Bond film Dr. No (1962). A reviewer wrote:
“Ursula Andress fills a wet bikini as if she were going downwind behind twin spinnakers.”
The bikini certainly complemented the va-va-voomery of Welch who was busty and a bit soft in the middle. In early bikini shots, stomachs were sucked in. In the 1970s, popular models like Cheryl Tiegs, possessed the athletic body that looked perfect in a tiny suit. In the 1960s, columnist Emily Post wrote:
“It is for perfect figures only, and for the very young.”
A monokini, or topless swimsuit is a one-piece garment that is basically just the lower half of a bikini. An extreme version of the monokini, the thong-style pubikini was introduced in 1985 by gay designer Rudi Gernreich.
By the 21st century, bikinis had become a $900 million business annually, and boosted spin-off services such as bikini waxing and special sun tanning.
Men’s bikinis have high or low side panels, and string sides or tie sides, but they lack a button or flap front. Unlike swim briefs, male bikinis are less than 1.5 inches wide at the hips and are the standard for bodybuilding competitions is an example of this style. The Bollywood movie Hera Pheri (2000) shows men sunbathing in bikinis, who are mistaken for women from a distance.
Sling swimsuits emerged in the early 1990s. When designed for or worn by a man, it is called a mankini, popularized by Sacha Baron Cohen in the film Borat (2006). Cohen, as always, was very brave.