The bikini, a two-piece bathing suit of diminutive proportions, first appeared on the fashion scene in the summer of 1946. Its impact was compared to that of the atomic bomb tests conducted that same summer by the United States at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Islands, which was arguably the source of its name. Both the French couturier Jacques Heim and the Swiss engineer Louis Reard are credited with launching the skimpy two-piece, which they dubbed the atome and bikini, respectively. The French model Michele Bernardini wore the first bikini at a fashion show in Paris. Her suit consisted of little more than two triangles of fabric for the bra, with strings that tied around the neck and back, and two triangles of fabric for the bottom, connected by strings at the hips.
The legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland dubbed the bikini the “swoonsuit,” and declared that it was the most important thing since the A-bomb, revealing “everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden name.” Vreeland worked at the time for Harper’s Bazaar, which was the first magazine to showcase the bikini in America. The May 1947 issue featured a Toni Frissell photograph of a model wearing a rayon green-and-white-polka-dot bikini by the American sportswear designer Carolyn Schnurer.
Vreeland’s comments about the bikini speak to the controversy that erupted when it first appeared. Unlike its two-piece counterparts, first seen on beaches in the late 1920s and 1930s, which exposed only a small section of midriff, the bikini bared a number of erogenous zones—the back, upper thigh, and for the first time, the navel—all at once. It was almost immediately banned, for religious reasons, in such countries as Spain, Portugal, and Italy and was shunned by American women as lacking in decency. Many public parks and beaches prohibited bikinis, and wearing them in private clubs and resorts was looked upon with disfavor.
The bikini remained a taboo novelty throughout the 1950s. Made even of such unusual fabrics as mink, grass, and porcupine quills, bikinis were worn mostly by screen sirens and pin-up girls like Brigitte Bardot, Jayne Mansfield, and Diana Dors, along with sophisticates on the beaches of resorts along the Riviera. They were also showcased in bathing suit beauty contests in vacation spots like Florida and California. One-piece and more modest two-piece suits, resembling the highly structured undergarments of the period, held favor with the majority of women until the end of the decade, when bikini sales started to rise.
An increased number of private pools in suburban backyards and a growing awareness of health and fitness were cited as possible causes for increased acceptance of bikini-wearing, at least within the privacy of one’s own home. Harper’s Bazaar touted the bikini as putting one close to the elements. American retailers, however, who reportedly sold more sleepwear resembling bikinis than actual bikini swimsuits, were ambivalent about the extent to which they should promote the sale of bikinis.
It was not until the 1960s that the bikini gained more widespread acceptance. Youth culture, celebrity endorsements, and innovations in textile technology such as the manufacture of spandex, helped establish the bikini, and its variations, as a mainstay in swimwear fashion. In 1960, the singer Brian Hyland immortalized the bikini with his hit song, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” A crop of beach movies with bikini-clad teenagers, including the former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, appeared. Ursula Andress wore one of the most famous bikinis, with a hip holster, in the 1962 James Bond film Dr. No—a variation of which was worn by Halle Berry in the 2002 Bond movie Die Another Day. Sports Illustrated published its first swimsuit issue in 1964, with Babette March wearing a bikini on the cover; appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s much-anticipated, annual swimsuit issue is now a coveted rite of passage for fashion models. The prevailing form of the early 1960s bikini was a structured bra top and low-slung, hip-hugging briefs, often embellished with ruffles and fringe.
Relaxing sexual mores and shifting views on modesty brought about more daring variations of the bikini in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1964, the American fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, whose progressive, androgynous clothing pushed fashion’s boundaries, debuted his “monokini” or topless bathing suit. The black wool knit suit consisted of briefs with suspenders that extended between bared breasts and around the neck, reminiscent of a bathing suit illustrated in 1940 by the Italian designer Umberto Brunescelli. Gernreich sold 3,000 of the monokinis by the end of the season. He again shocked the public when he unveiled his unisex thong bathing suits in 1974, and the “pubikini” in the mid 1980s. The thong bikini, which revealed the buttocks, has since become the unofficial uniform of professional bodybuilders, boxing ring girls who announce the rounds, and female dancers in music videos.
In 1974, the string bikini, or “tanga,” consisting of little more than tiny triangles of cloth held together with ties at the hip and around the neck and back, emerged from Rio de Janeiro. Topless bathing, which had been accepted for some time in exotic beach locales such as Rio and Saint Tropez, started to gain popularity on public beaches in the 1970s, particularly in the United States.
By the late 1970s, the bikini, which had been pushed to extremely minimal proportions, had lost some of its shock value and allure, and in response the one-piece suit came into favor again. However, new one-piece styles were strongly influenced by the bikini phenomenon. A year after Gernreich’s monokini was unveiled, “scandal suits” by Cole of California, also known as net bikinis, were popular, at once playfully revealing and concealing the body with solid patches of fabric connected with patches of net. The thong was also a clear antecedent of figure revealing one-pieces of the late 1970s and 1980s, which were cut high on the thigh, low at the neck and down the back, and open at the sides.
The trend toward less-structured, more figure-revealing suits such as the bikini corresponded with the sports and fitness craze that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. Sport bikinis with racer-back tops and high-cut briefs appeared in the 1980s and were popular into the 1990s, worn, for example, as the official uniform for women’s volleyball teams in the 1996 Olympics. In the twenty-first century, the bikini has regained popularity through new incarnations, many of which are, paradoxically, made with more fabric.
The “tankini,” a two-piece that can provide as much coverage as a one-piece, has appeared, along with the “boy short” bottoms and surfer styles reminiscent of 1960s bikinis. High-end fashion houses such as Chanel, which debuted its minimal “eye-patch” bikini in 1995, contributed to the surfer craze with logo-emblazoned bikinis and surfboards in their Spring/Summer 2002 collection.
Despite the initial controversy, the bikini has become a perennial in swimwear fashion, particularly among the young. Youth-oriented culture, sexual emancipation, innovation in textile technology, an emphasis on sports and fitness, and the overarching societal shift to a more relaxed style of dress have all contributed to the bikini’s success.
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Probert, Christina. Swimwear in Vogue Since 1910. New York: Abbeville Press, 1981.