This holiday weekend, Americans will be cavorting on the beach, many of them in swimwear that covers as little as possible. In 2006, Julia Turner traced the history of the bikini to explain its exploding popularity.
Sixty years ago, the world’s first bikini made its debut at a poolside fashion show in Paris. The swimsuit is now so ubiquitous—and comparatively so demure—that it’s hard to comprehend how shocking people once found it. When the bikini first arrived, its revealing cut scandalized even the French fashion models who were supposed to wear it; they refused, and the original designer had to enlist a stripper instead. The images below illustrate how the bikini slowly gained acceptance—first on the Riviera, then in the United States—and became a beachfront staple.
When the bikini was unveiled in 1946, it was by no means the first time that women had worn so revealing a garment in public. In the fourth century, for example, Roman gymnasts wore bandeau tops, bikini bottoms, and even anklets that would look perfectly at home on the beaches of Southern California today.
In the 1940s—as Kelly Killoren Bensimon —attractive women were known as “bombshells,” and anything intense was “atomic.” So, when two Frenchmen independently designed skimpy alternatives to the two-piece in the summer of 1946, both suits got nuclear nicknames. The first designer, Jacques Heim, created a tiny suit called the atome. The second, Louis Reard, introduced his design on July 5, four days after the United States had begun atomic testing in the Bikini Atoll. In a rather bold marketing ploy, Reard named his creation le bikini, implying it was as momentous an invention as the new bomb.
The bikini soon became ubiquitous. In 1965, a woman told Time it was “almost square” not to wear a bikini—which, given the outlet, suggests she was right. In 1967 the magazine wrote that “65% of the young set had already gone over.” The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue debuted in 1964—with a white bikini on the cover. And the swimsuit’s increasing popularity was reinforced by its appearance in contemporary movies like Annette Funicello’s How To Stuff a Wild Bikini and Raquel Welch’s One Million Years B.C. One of the bikini’s earliest and most memorable film roles came in the 1962 Bond film Dr. No. (A journalist who saw an advance screening reported, “Actress Ursula Andress fills a wet bikini as if she were going downwind behind twin spinnakers.”)
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