They are itsy-bitsy. They are teenie-weenie. Sometimes, they’re even yellow polka-dotted. The bikini is an invention of fashion design that so rocked the world that it was named for a nuclear event, latching on to a growing zeitgeist inspired by the atomic bomb. This scandalous and seductive piece of swimwear clothing became part of a cultural moment when it was first introduced thanks to intelligent marketing decisions made by people who had no problem being brash. Although one-piece swimsuits are what most beachgoers are likely to see this summer, the introduction of the bikini in some ways brought us back to the earliest human societies.
So why are we talking about bikini’s? Frequent readers know that for holidays we like to find an appropriate holiday theme that allows us to write about patents, innovation, technology, or intellectual property. When we recently saw the new Carl’s Jr. commercial for the Most American Thick Burger, with its over the top American imagery, our minds started racing. How could we use that as a hook for a patent related article? Easy. We return to our evolution series, this time looking at the innovative fashion design icon that is the bikini. We also return to a familiar theme, our Summer Fun series.
Bikinis, from the beginning
Evidence of a skimpy clothing item for women used for recreation goes back to about 1400 BC as is evidenced by illustrations found on Grecian urns and paintings from that time. A 4th century mosaic located at the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily essentially shows two women playing a game that almost looks like modern-day volleyball while wearing ancient bikinis. The incredibly thin top piece covering the breasts, as well as the negligible loincloth riding the top of the ladies’ thighs, would not be out of place on today’s beaches and, in our time, would likely not have caused the same moral outrage inspired by the mid-20th century swimwear design.
Thanks to gallery slideshows put together separately by both TIME and Elle, we’re able to trace the progress towards the modern bikini as far back as the 1890s. In that decade European beaches, some of which would come to be seen by many on this side of the Atlantic as a nudists’ paradise (perhaps in part because of the bikini’s success), were full of women who covered much more skin than they bared. The shorts used for this swimwear style were very modest and women would sew weights into the short hems to keep them down.
The early 1900s saw more form-fitting female clothing for aquatic recreation owing in some part to the 1900 Olympics in Paris, where women competed in the global athletic competition for the first time. Carl Jantzen, who founded the Portland Knitting Company in 1910, designed swimwear that would help a woman more easily glide through the water by wrapping the clothes more tightly around the body’s shape. These pieces are still a far cry from anything that would cause jaws to drop today but a desire for attractive (dare we even say sexy) design was starting to emerge.
The path towards swimwear progress was not without its perils, of course, and pioneers in the field were often the victims of their own success. Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer with a flair for the dramatic, was arrested on a Massachusetts beach in 1907 for wearing a tight-fitting swimsuit which had the audacity to show off her bare arms and legs. Of course, she held multiple women’s swimming records during her career, achieved success against male competitors and even transitioned from aquatic competitor to swimming film star. In 1914’s A Daughter of the Gods, a very early motion picture which garnered some critical praise in its time, Kellerman even appeared fully nude, her feminine anatomy covered only by Kellerman’s hip-length brunette locks in a way that evokes Neoclassical tastes. Clearly, history proves Kellerman to be a major victor in the moral battle waged over swimwear.
The next major step towards the acceptance of “less is more” as a swimwear concept was the development of sunbathing as a fad in the 1930s and 1940s. In earlier days, pale skin was a desirable mark for those who wanted to make sure that others knew they weren’t working class: it was good to be a rich “blue blood” with skin so translucent that it showed the veins and not good to be a “redneck” from long hours of outdoor labor. During the last decade of the 19th century, however it was discovered by European physician Theobald A. Palm that exposing the skin to sunlight was very important for the prevention of rickets; it was later understood that this is because human bodies can create vitamin D from sunlight in a human form of photosynthesis. Over the years, the healing benefit of direct sun contact on the skin was suggested as a potential cure for everything from tuberculosis to acne. Soon, tastes on common decency in outdoor spaces would change to the point that in 1940 a publication entitled The Sunbathing and Health Magazine ran a cover photo with two nudes. (Note: Readers should be forewarned that the previous link features nudity).
By the 1940s, a swimsuit which showed a female’s midriff wasn’t sensational so much as fashionable. Plenty of celebrities like Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner were donning two-piece swimsuits, which were made even more appealing to those women who wanted to appear patriotic when the U.S. federal government began to ration fabric during WWII.
The dawn of the bikini crazy
This helped to set the stage for a couple of French fashion designers who helped unleash the bikini craze to the world around the beginning of July 1946. Importantly, around this time, the U.S. government was involved with tests of atomic weapons at the Pacific Ocean’s Bikini Atoll, where it would conduct 67 nuclear weapons tests between 1946 and 1958. Given the growing popularity of nuclear power in a day before most people truly understood the cataclysmic terror that these weapons posed, it’s little surprise that Jacques Heim would call his eye-popping two-piece the atome, the name serving as an homage to the lack of fabric incorporated into the fabric. Days after the U.S. began nuclear tests at Bikini, Louis Reard unleashed his creation, le bikini on July 5th, 1946, specifically named to capture the attention of those who were amazed at the power of the bomb.
So why did “bikini” win out over “atom” as the widely recognized synonym for this tantalizing swimsuit? A smart marketing ploy seems to yet again be the reason why Reard’s version, which at 30 inches of fabric was slighter than Heim’s design, gained more popular acclaim and derision, both of which are good sources of publicity. Advertisement distributed all over the world starring Micheline Bernardini, a French nude dancer, put the bikini on display all over the globe. Always willing to push the envelope when it came to promoting his product, Reard turned heads in the 1950s when his advertisements claimed that a bikini wasn’t an authentic bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.”
Adoption of the bikini was pretty slow in the United States where the mainstream consciousness tended to look down upon the swimsuit design. A 1950 TIME interview with Fred Cole, an American swimsuit mogul, gave Cole a chance to explain how he had “little but scorn for France’s famed Bikini bathing suits.” A 1957 issue of Modern Girl went so far as to say that “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.”
Of course, leave it to Hollywood to help mainstream America get over itself. Much like how 1920s burlesque brought revealing clothing to the live stage, the silver screen started to get middle America to warm up to the bikini. Starlets like Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe both turned heads by donning bikinis during 1950s films and the swimsuit was perfect for the burgeoning beach and surf culture that would erupt during the 1960s. Soon, many areas of popular culture would go from decrying the sinful nature of this salacious swimsuit and either poke fun at it, as in the case of the well-known Brian Hyland song, or relish in its sex appeal the way that Dr. No and other James Bond films did. It may amaze some of our readers to know that the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is now more than 50 years old; its first issue featured a cover photo of model Babette Beatty in a bikini and the search for sexy SI swimsuit covers has continued on ever since.
Reard closed up shop in 1988 even though the bikini still accounted for 20 percent of all swimsuit sales in America. Although one-piece swimsuits and more conservative options were still widely available, through the 1990s there was a small movement towards even more revealing swimwear options like the G-string thong. Today, no matter whether a person is watching female athletic competitions, a summer blockbuster film featuring a bombshell actress or even just spending some family time at the beach, the bikini has gone from head-turner and has become something much more commonplace and rather ordinary. The explosive moment in time during which this swimsuit was introduced now remains a memory of the glory of post-WWII freedom.