From the early 1930s, stylish resorts were frequented by women wearing midriff-baring two-piece bathing suits consisting of a bra and modest, shorts-like trunks. Concurrently, these styles were being seen on the silver screen courtesy of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties and, in a sarong version, Dorothy Lamour in the 1937 film Hurricane. Though these ensembles were alluring and sexy, they were not necessarily scandalous. The difference between the bikini and its two-piece predecessor is brevity. Simply defined, the bikini is an abbreviated two-piece swimsuit with a bra top and panties cut below the navel. Broadly defined, the bikini represents a social leap involving body consciousness, moral concerns, and sexual attitudes. Named after an A-bomb testing site on a remote Pacific atoll, the bikini has had a history and reputation deserving of its name.
Fashion designer Jacques Heim and mechanical engineer Louis Reard both claim to be the first to launch the bikini on the French Riviera in Cannes in the summer of 1946. The design, two triangles on top, positioned to cover the bosom and two triangles, one front, one back, on the bottom, was basic. Though Reard patented his version and Heim is now remembered as a couturier and an early supporter of sportswear, there is much debate over who “invented” the bikini. A likely scenario is that both gentlemen had seen the local jeunes filles of Cannes sunning themselves in the most abbreviated beach costumes in order to achieve the bronze of the newly fashionable suntan. The bathers had pushed the fashion to the acceptable social limit, and both businessmen took advantage of this show of youthful daring. Officially, the first time the bikini appeared in a fashion event was at a poolside show at the Piscine Molitor in Paris on July 5, 1946.
Though a success in postwar France, Americans deemed the bikini too risqué until Hollywood stars like Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner were photographed wearing them. A two-piece suit with a halter or bandeau top and gracefully draped or skirted bottom half was common attire for screen siren Esther Williams. Soon movie fans could replicate her look complete with plunging neckline, bare midriff, and gold lamé jersey courtesy of costume designer Margit Fellegi for Cole of California. Catalina, another leading bathing suit manufacturer, used many Hollywood stars, such as Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe, in their advertisements.
From their first public appearance in the mid-nineteenth century, bathing suits, both one- and two-piece, were constructed of wool, cotton, and less frequently, terrycloth. By the late 1930s, bathing suit manufacturers began taking advantage of new developments in fabric technology when Lastex and nylon, a quick-drying elasticized fabric, were developed. These new synthetic fibers allowed for an incredibly revealing silhouette. Postwar swimsuits had a conical bosom created from wire and padding. Boned and cupped, the two-piece bathing suit greatly resembled the foundation garments of the day. For a more tailored look, designers like Tom Brigance at Lord & Taylor department store cut his swimwear from colorful cottons in stripes, large prints, and polka dots.
Though California instinctively comes to mind when thinking about bikinis in the 1960s–’70s, France, specifically the French Riviera, led the way again in beach fashion with the string bikini in the early ’60s. The string bikini was even briefer than its predecessor, with string ties for the minimal halter bra and triangular panties also tied, and worn low on the hip. Bridget Bardot, frolicking in Saint-Tropez, popularized the look, sometimes sans top. For a more chic look, Italian sportswear designer Emilio Pucci produced bikinis in soft silk jersey in his ebullient trademark prints and colors. A big development came from Rudi Gernreich, when his monokini was introduced in 1964. With its thin straps attached directly to the bottom brief, the wearer’s entire upper torso was revealed, to the dismay of more conservative bathers. Alternative swimwear fabrics such as velvet, leather, and crocheted squares surfaced in the early ’70s. Norma Kamali’s innovative designs utilized gold Lurex for a shiny sexy swimsuit. The new thigh-high cut of her bottom led the way to the tanga and the thong, an essentially backless bikini bottom first made popular on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro.
Charleston, Beth Duncuff. “The Bikini.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/biki/hd_biki.htm (October 2004)
Hall, Marian, Marjorie Carne, and Sylvia Sheppard. California Fashion: From the Old West to New Hollywood. New York: Abrams, 2002.
Kidwell, Claudia Brush, and Valerie Steele. Men and Women: Dressing the Part. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda. Splash! A History of Swimwear. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.