Today, the bikini as we know it is a fairly standard item of clothing. You’ll be able to find it in any clothing store in any mall come summer time, and be sure to see it paraded on the beach, in clubs and on the covers of both women’s fashion and men's magazines. It has become a ubiquitous sign of beauty, youth and sex appeal through its representation in the popular media and can be found in endless varieties. From the pink Barbie ones to go with a 4 year olds water wings to the barely there metallic kind flaunted in hip hop music videos, you’d never guess that was over 50 years old and still getting smaller.
Two Frenchmen, namely Louis Reard and Jacques Heim are the ones normally credited with the invention of the bikini, however in truth, they were more like the re-inventors or the revolutionaries. There are many instances of bikini like outfits found drawn or carved on friezes and wall paintings dating back to about 1600 B.C – although the mammoth fur bikinis made iconic in One Million Years B.C can probably be attributed to modern day marketing men.
The early years
Since the early 1930s, women on European beaches had been wearing modest two piece swimsuits that consisted of a pair of shorts and a halter neck top. But all these showed off – and this only in the most daring designs – was a small sliver of midriff, the bellybutton was always covered. Even still, these two piece designs only made their way to American coast-lines during World War II when, like everything else, the material used to make women’s swimsuits was rationed. This saw designers removing fabric from the skirt panel, back and other areas where it could be deemed as too superfluous. As the war progressed, the production of fashionable swim wear was obviously not high on anyone’s to-do list, and combined with the fact that, particularly in Europe, the beaches were no longer regarded as the carefree frolicking grounds they had been seen as pre-War, not much happened to progress the state of undress any further.
However, come 1946, people all over Europe came out from inside and flocked to celebrate the first war-free summer in years. The feeling of liberation was tangible and every designer was keen to provide something to match the consumers attitudes. No doubt it would come down to the French to be the first to make a splash in the world of fashion!
Shocking the masses
Early in the spring, Heim announced his creation – The Atome – and began to market it by hiring a skywriting plane to scrawl "Atome -- the world's smallest bathing suit" across the skies of France. Unbeknown to him however, a one time designer and engineer for Renault named Louis Reard had been developing his own version of a free spirited two piece. Just three weeks later Reard first showcased his design.
Not be outdone by his main rival he wanted to put on a show. He hired another plane to write the words "Bikini -- smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world." for all to view. He had named it the bikini after the tiny Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean where the American military had been carrying out nuclear weapons tests in the previous years. To get as much attention as possible for the bikinis first viewing, he chose the most popular swimming pool in Paris, the Piscine Molitor, as his show ground. However he was having great difficulty in finding a professional model to wear the outfit. Made out of just 30 inches of fabric and consisting of a small bra-like top plus two small triangles and some string, the bikini was deemed far too revealing for a model to risk her reputation with. In the end, it found itself draped over the stunning figure of Parisian show girl Micheline Bernardini from the Casino de Paris who had no qualms about appearing in varying degrees of nakedness in public.
Taking on the beaches
Of course the creation caused a stir – Reard had anticipated this and as such had decorated Micheline's costume in news print - and the more controversy arose around it, the more Reard pushed its design. He even began a marketing campaign that claimed that a bikini was not a genuine bikini unless “it could be pulled through a wedding ring.” At first the bikini was only really a hit amongst men, with Micheline allegedly receiving over 50 000 fan letters in the month following her appearance. But soon, bold young women up and down the Mediterranean coast began to flaunt their figures in Reard's creation.
Naturally there were those who were outraged by its overt sexuality and in deeply religious countries such as Italy and Spain, the swimsuit was banned from all public beaches. Those in the USA were shocked by the outfits being flaunted on foreign shores and many fashion magazines rushed to denounce the garment as indecent and something no classy woman would ever wear. And by 1951 decency leagues had even managed to ban it from all beauty pageants and local beaches and had pressured Hollywood into keeping it out of movies. However, there were also many defenders of the bikini and highlighting the circumstances of its invention Jamie Samet pointed out:
"Remember that no one had been to the beach in years, people were craving the simple pleasures of the sea and the sun. For women, wearing a bikini signalled a kind of second liberation. There was really nothing sexual about this. It was instead a celebration of freedom and a return to the joys in life."
As the bikinis popularity grew in leaps and bounds, Spain and Italy lifted their bans and eventually, in 1960, America followed suit and bikinis were brought en masse to its beaches. It was from here on that the bikini began to make its iconic mark on popular culture.
In the 2000s bikini sales have continued to climb, with designers making use of new fabrics and the 'anything shows' attitude prevalent in current trends, as well as being backed by the consumers desire to, well, be desired. The bikini’s journey through modern life has touched on many aspects of pop culture with some of fashions, cinemas and music’s most memorable images containing the classic stunning girl in bikini. While some may see this as something we should not be that proud of, there can be no doubt that with its ongoing evolution and popularity and despite the fact that the novelty and shock value have worn off, it looks here to stay.
- For some evidence of ancient bikini's, take a look at photo's of murals found in Pompeii - http://www.cimt.it/images/bikini.jpg
- The History Channel - http://www.historychannel.com
- TIME International - July 1, 1996 Volume 148, No. 1
- Sports Illustrated 1997 Swimsuit Issue