When romping around the beach or laying out poolside, the sun beating down in waves of blistering heat, the least amount of clothing possible is necessary. Cue: the bikini. An inter-continental staple, the bikini has been around for longer than one might expect.
The first appearance of bikini-esque wear takes us back to ancient Greece and Rome. Artifacts sourced from these eras, such as a mosaic at the Piazza Armerina in Sicily, display women gymnasts and athletes wearing bandeau-style tops and brief style bottoms. As it turns out, the ancient Greeks and Romans were far ahead of their time; no garment so revealing came into fashion between then and the mid-1900s.
Building Up to the Bikini
In the Victorian era, swimming was a wildly elaborate concealment process. Women used a cart called a “bathing machine.” A woman would enter the cart to change into her full-coverage bathing clothes, have a horse pull her cart into the sea, and finally disembark, slipping unseen into the water.
In the early 1900s, swimming legend Annette Kellerman found herself facing indecent exposure charges after donning a one-piece, tank suit at a beach in Boston. Soon after, a wool, knitted one-piece, complete with a cap and stockings, became classic beach garb for women.
In the early 1940s, what we might now consider to be a high-waisted bikini became appropriate. Stars like Ava Gardner and Esther Williams popularized this trend. Few took issue with the swimwear; the concealment of all skin below the bellybutton satiated the masses.
Birth of the Modern Bikini
The summer of 1946 ushered in the first bikini and the world was scandalized. At a poolside fashion show, a designer named Jacques Heim debuted what he called the “atome,” a perhaps distasteful nod to the recently developed atomic bombs and a suggestion that the clothing garment might have a similar impact. Shortly after, on July 5th of 1946, rival designer Louis Réard debuted an even tinier piece. He named his design “le bikini,” named for the United States’ atomic testing site, Bikini Atoll. He too was suggesting equal monument to the bomb.
The backlash to the introduction of the never-before-seen bikini, or rather, the never-before-seen parts of a woman’s body, was enormous. Americans firmly believed that the bikini would never make it to their shores. In countries like Spain, Portugal, and Italy, the swimsuit was immediately banned. The outfit was taboo.
Bound for the States
Harper’s Bazaar became the first magazine to promote the bikini in the United States, despite iconic fashion editor Diana Vreeland’s comment that it revealed “everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden name.” However, for about a decade afterward, the bikini was on a slow climb to popularity. By 1960, it was an American staple. Singer Brian Hyland solidified the trend with his hit song, “Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”
Throughout the next few decades, the bikini only grew in fashion fame. James Bond female protagonist Ursula Andress wore a bikini for her role in 1962, designer Rudi Gernreich debuted his androgynous “monokini” in 1964, and the very first Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue came out in 1967.
Today, nearly every female celebrity, from Kylie Jenner to Heidi Klum to Simone Mariposa has rocked a bikini in public. New styles have cropped up, like the high-neck, the one-shoulder, the ruched bottoms, the thong, and the bandeau top. Even the 1940s high-waisted bikini look is having a moment in modern fashion.
Despite a history of scandal and unstable footing, the bikini is not going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, it’s about time for an update to the classic beach look. What up-and-coming swimwear style is destined to shake up the world next?