During World War II (1939–45) the United States government directed that the amount of cloth in women's beachwear be reduced by 10 percent to conserve fabric which was needed in the war effort. As a result swimsuit manufacturers produced suits featuring bare midriffs. Such garments, however, were downright conventional when compared to what was to come right after the war, with the invention of the bikini: a skimpy, two-piece bathing suit consisting of a bra top and two reversed cloth triangles attached by a string.
The bikini was devised separately but simultaneously in 1946 by two Frenchmen, Louis Réard (1897–1984) and Jacques Heim (1900–1967). Réard, an engineer, named his creation after Bikini, a Pacific Ocean atoll, a string of coral islands, where the United States government was testing nuclear bombs. Heim, a clothing designer, named his version atome, the French word for atom, and announced that it was the world's smallest bathing suit. Réard countered his competitor by calling the bikini smaller than the world's smallest bathing suit. Both parts of his suit consisted of only thirty inches of fabric. It was in fact so tiny that no French model would wear it in public. A nude dancer finally agreed to be photographed wearing one. After a picture of her in Réard's bikini was published, she received close to fifty thousand fan letters.
At first the bikini was considered risqué and was even banned in beauty pageants and on many European beaches. Its rise in popularity was directly linked to its being worn by attractive young movie actresses. British actress Diana Dors (1931–1984) wore a mink bikini at the 1955 Venice Film Festival, and American stars Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962) and Jayne Mansfield (1932–1967) were photographed in them in the 1950s. The 1950s screen icon who most famously put on the bikini was Brigitte Bardot (1934–), a French movie star. Bardot wore it on the French Riviera and in the film Et Dieu … céa la femme (1956), also known as … And God Created Woman.
The bikini was not worn on American beaches until the 1960s, when its rise as an acceptable mode of swimwear was linked to popular culture. First, pop singer Brian Hyland (1943–) celebrated the bikini with his hit song, "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" (1960). The lyrics depicted a woman, wearing a bikini for the first time, who was "afraid to come out of the water" because she was embarrassed by her scanty attire. A couple of years later, it was boldly worn by Ursula Andress (1936–) in Dr. No (1962), the first James Bond movie. Bikinis then became the favored attire in a cycle of popular, teen-oriented sun-and-surf movies, beginning with Beach Party (1963). The word even was worked into the titles of a number of these films: Bikini Beach (1964); How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965); Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965); The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966); and It's a Bikini World (1967). Raquel Welch (1942–) wore a fur bikini playing a cavewoman in One Million Years B.C. (1966). By then the bikini was fast becoming a basic beach outfit.
Women favored bikinis because of their stylishness and the liberating nature of their design; wearing them provided women the opportunity to publicly display their bodies. Men liked bikinis because they showed off more of the female body.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Alac, Patrick. The Bikini: A Cultural History. London, England: Parkstone Press, 2002.
Baker, Patricia. Fashions of a Decade: The 1940s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
The bikini, a two-piece bathing suit of diminutive proportions, first appeared on the fashion scene in the summer of 1946. Its impact was compared to that of the atomic bomb tests conducted that same summer by the United States at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Islands,
which was arguably the source of its name. Both the French couturier Jacques Heim and the Swiss engineer Louis Reard are credited with launching the skimpy two-piece, which they dubbed the atome and bikini, respectively. The French model Michele Bernardini wore the first bikini at a fashion show in Paris. Her suit consisted of little more than two triangles of fabric for the bra, with strings that tied around the neck and back, and two triangles of fabric for the bottom, connected by strings at the hips.
The legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland dubbed the bikini the "swoonsuit," and declared that it was the most important thing since the A-bomb, revealing "everything about a girl except her mother's maiden name." Vreeland worked at the time for Harper's Bazaar, which was the first magazine to showcase the bikini in America. The May 1947 issue featured a Toni Frissell photograph of a model wearing a rayon green-and-white-polka-dot bikini by the American sportswear designer Carolyn Schnurer.
Vreeland's comments about the bikini speak to the controversy that erupted when it first appeared. Unlike its two-piece counterparts, first seen on beaches in the late 1920s and 1930s, which exposed only a small section of midriff, the bikini bared a number of erogenous zones—the back, upper thigh, and for the first time, the navel—all at once. It was almost immediately banned, for religious reasons, in such countries as Spain, Portugal, and Italy and was shunned by American women as lacking in decency. Many public parks and beaches prohibited bikinis, and wearing them in private clubs and resorts was looked upon with disfavor.
The bikini remained a taboo novelty throughout the 1950s. Made even of such unusual fabrics as mink, grass, and porcupine quills, bikinis were worn mostly by screen sirens and pin-up girls like Brigitte Bardot, Jayne Mansfield, and Diana Dors, along with sophisticates on the beaches of resorts along the Riviera. They were also showcased in bathing suit beauty contests in vacation spots like Florida and California. One-piece and more modest two-piece suits, resembling the highly structured undergarments of the period, held favor with the majority of women until the end of the decade, when bikini sales started to rise.
An increased number of private pools in suburban backyards and a growing awareness of health and fitness were cited as possible causes for increased acceptance of bikini-wearing, at least within the privacy of one's own home. Harper's Bazaar touted the bikini as putting one close to the elements. American retailers, however, who reportedly sold more sleepwear resembling bikinis than actual bikini swimsuits, were ambivalent about the extent to which they should promote the sale of bikinis.
It was not until the 1960s that the bikini gained more widespread acceptance. Youth culture, celebrity endorsements, and innovations in textile technology such as the manufacture of spandex, helped establish the bikini, and its variations, as a mainstay in swimwear fashion. In 1960, the singer Brian Hyland immortalized the bikini with his hit song, "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." A crop of beach movies with bikini-clad teenagers, including the former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, appeared. Ursula Andress wore one of the most famous bikinis, with a hip holster, in the 1962 James Bond film Dr. No—a variation of which was worn by Halle Berry in the 2002 Bond movie Die Another Day. Sports Illustrated published its first swimsuit issue in 1964, with Babette March wearing a bikini on the cover; appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated's much-anticipated, annual swimsuit issue is now a coveted rite of passage for fashion models. The prevailing form of the early 1960s bikini was a structured bra top and low-slung, hip-hugging briefs, often embellished with ruffles and fringe.
Relaxing sexual mores and shifting views on modesty brought about more daring variations of the bikini in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1964, the American fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, whose progressive, androgynous clothing pushed fashion's boundaries, debuted his "monokini" or topless bathing suit. The black wool knit suit consisted of briefs with suspenders that extended between bared breasts and around the neck, reminiscent of a bathing suit illustrated in 1940 by the Italian designer Umberto Brunescelli. Gernreich sold 3,000 of the monokinis by the end of the season. He again shocked the public when he unveiled his unisex thong bathing suits in 1974, and the "pubikini" in the mid 1980s. The thong bikini, which revealed the buttocks, has since become the unofficial uniform of professional bodybuilders, boxing ring girls who announce the rounds, and female dancers in music videos.
In 1974, the string bikini, or "tanga," consisting of little more than tiny triangles of cloth held together with ties at the hip and around the neck and back, emerged from Rio de Janeiro. Topless bathing, which had been accepted for some time in exotic beach locales such as Rio and Saint Tropez, started to gain popularity on public beaches in the 1970s, particularly in the United States.
By the late 1970s, the bikini, which had been pushed to extremely minimal proportions, had lost some of its shock value and allure, and in response the one-piece suit came into favor again. However, new one-piece styles were strongly influenced by the bikini phenomenon. A year after Gernreich's monokini was unveiled, "scandal suits" by Cole of California, also known as net bikinis, were popular, at once playfully revealing and concealing the body with solid patches of fabric connected with patches of net. The thong was also a clear antecedent of figure revealing one-pieces of the late 1970s and 1980s, which were cut high on the thigh, low at the neck and down the back, and open at the sides.
The trend toward less-structured, more figure-revealing suits such as the bikini corresponded with the sports and fitness craze that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. Sport bikinis with racer-back tops and high-cut briefs appeared in the 1980s and were popular into the 1990s, worn, for example, as the official uniform for women's volleyball teams in the 1996 Olympics. In the twenty-first century, the bikini has regained popularity through new incarnations, many of which are, paradoxically, made with more fabric.
The "tankini," a two-piece that can provide as much coverage as a one-piece, has appeared, along with the "boy short" bottoms and surfer styles reminiscent of 1960s bikinis. High-end fashion houses such as Chanel, which debuted its minimal "eye-patch" bikini in 1995, contributed to the surfer craze with logo-emblazoned bikinis and surfboards in their Spring/Summer 2002 collection.
Despite the initial controversy, the bikini has become a perennial in swimwear fashion, particularly among the young. Youth-oriented culture, sexual emancipation, innovation in textile technology, an emphasis on sports and fitness, and the overarching societal shift to a more relaxed style of dress have all contributed to the bikini's success.
Lencek, Lena, and Gideon Bosker. Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988.
Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda. Splash!: A History of Swimwear. New York: Rizzoli International, 1990.
Poli, Doretta Davanzo. Beachwear and Bathing-Costume. Modena, Italy: Zanfi Editori, 1995.
Probert, Christina. Swimwear in Vogue Since 1910. New York: Abbeville Press, 1981.
ETHNONYMS: Escholtz Islands
Bikini is the largest of the twenty-six islands in the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Bikini is the northernmost atoll in the Ratak chain of atolls and islands and is located at 11° 31′ N and 165° 34′ E. The twenty-six islands have a total land area of 7.6 square kilometers and surround a large lagoon some 641 square kilometers in area. Bikini has drawn considerable attention since the relocation of the 161 resident Bikinians in 1946 so that the atoll could be used as a test site for atomic and nuclear weapons by the U.S. government. Because of radiation contamination from the tests, Bikini is uninhabitated today and will probably remain so for some years. Bikinians today number over 400 and live elsewhere in the Marshall Islands, mainly on Kili. Bikinian identity is based on rights to ownership of land on Bikini that are inherited from ancestors.
Bikini was settled before 1800 possibly by people migrating from Wotje Atoll. Because of the island's relative isolation, Bikinians had little contact with other peoples in the Marshalls. First contact with Europeans was evidently in 1824 with the Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue, although no European actually settled on Bikini until after 1900. The first American missionary arrived in 1908 and Bikinians were drawn into the copra trade during the German colonial period, which ended with World War I. The Japanese ruled the Marshalls from World War I to World War II, and they established a base on Bikini during World War II. After the war, the Marshalls became a Trust Territory of the U.S. and achieved independence in 1986.
Because of its isolation and the large lagoon, Bikini Atoll was selected by the U.S. government as the site for testing the effects of atomic bombs on naval vessels. This decision led to negotiations with the Bikinians and their agreeing to relocate to Rongerik Island in 1946. When this site proved inadequate, they relocated again to Kwajalein Island in 1948 and then Kili later in 1948, where most remained, although some also settled on Kwajalein and Jaluit. An organized attempt was made by the Department of the Interior to develop the Kili community economically, an effort that met with limited success.
From 1946 to 1957, twenty-three atomic and nuclear tests were conducted at Bikini. In 1968, Bikini was declared habitable by the U.S. government and 100 Bikinians had returned by 1974, though the island was now barren of much of the vegetation that had existed when they left in 1946. When tests in 1978 showed unacceptably high levels of strontium 90 radiation in Bikinians on the island, the island was declared uninhabitable and the people relocated again to Kili. As compensation for the loss of their land, the Bikinians were awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1956 by the United States. Some payments went to individuals while others were used to establish a trust fund for the entire community. These payments have made Bikinians, along with people from Enewetak, Rongelap, Utirik, and Kwajalein who also received compensation, wealthier than other Marshall Islanders. The payments also made the Bikinians economically dependent on income from the trust fund and contributed to an erosion of participation in prerelocation economic pursuits such as taro and copra production. Relocation also changed traditional patterns of social and political organization. On Bikini, rights to land and landownership were the major factor in social and political organization and leadership. Also, the Bikinians, as Marshall Islanders, were under the nominal control of the Paramount Chief of the islands, though actual contact with other islands was minimal. After relocation and settlement on Kili, a dual system of land tenure emerged, with disbursements of interest from the trust fund linked to landownership on Bikini and a separate system reflecting current land tenure on Kili influencing current political alliances and leadership. Regular contact with the U.S. government led the Bikinians to reject the primacy of the Paramount Chief and instead to look to U.S. government officials for support and assistance.
See also Marshall Islands
Kiste, Robert C. (1974). The Bikinians: A Study in Forced Migration. Menlo Park, Calif.: Cummings Publishing Co.
Mason, Leonard (1954). "Relocation of the Bikini Marshalese: A Study in Group Migration." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University.
bi·ki·ni / biˈkēnē/ • n. (pl. -nis ) a very brief two-piece swimsuit for women. ∎ (also bi·ki·nis) scanty underpants.