|A model shows off Louisn Reard's forst Bikini in 1946.|
On July 5, 1946 war weary France was given something explosive to shake out of the drab and depressing years of Nazi occupation. Designer Louis Reard introduced a skimpy new two piece bathing suit whose very abbreviated bottom was cut high on the thigh and well below the belly button. Since he expected his suit to really shake things up, he named it the Bikini because the Americans had set off a highly publicized Atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific four days earlier.
He was not even the first designer with the idea. A few days before Jacques Heim had unveiled a very similar suit that he called the atome. Maybe Reard had a better press agent, or maybe the Bikini was just a better name, but the press went wild for his creation.
When pictures reached the U.S. our still puritanical society was predictably appalled and outraged. A surprising amount of serious ink was spent in editorial columns of major newspapers and “smart” magazines decrying the bathing suit and tsk-tsking about plummeting morals.
Two piece suits themselves were nothing new. They had been worn stateside with little public comment since the mid ‘30’s. The bottoms of these suits, however, were essentially tight fitting shorts, legs cut straight across and the tops modestly covering the navel. The tops were armored breast-plate like bras covered with fabric and often trimmed in pleated flounces to make sure that no swelling flesh was inadvertently exposed.
After all this is was a nation that was so shocked by a simple one piece tank suit in that authorities arrested Australian swimming A champion Annett Kellerman in 1907 for wearing one on a Boston beach. Although her case helped overturn some of the more draconian swimming dress codes, heavy wool suites with long sleeves, skirts, and stockings did not disappear until the late ‘20’s.
Esther Williams’s Aquacade film extravaganzas of the ‘40’s set off an American interest in swimwear that was figure flattering—if a girl had William’s substantial curves—while appropriately chaste.
Even in France the daring bikini took a while to take off with the public. But by the early ‘50’s they were common on the beaches of the Riviera. It took until about 1960 for bikinis to become more than exotic curiosities in the United States. Although restrictions against them remained in force at most public beaches and pools, the rapid spread of private pools gave women places where they could actually wear the little suites without being arrested.
Pools were becoming an expected attraction at the roadside motels catering to a nation on wheels and the back yard pool had gone from being a symbol of ostentatious wealth to a common amenity of many middle class homes. Society as a whole was becoming more relaxed—blame the pernicious influence of Hollywood and Rock and Roll.
In 1960 Brian Hyland chronicled the fate of a modest young woman and her new swim suit in his hit Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. The popular teen beach and surfing movies of the decade helped spread the craze, though beach queen Annette Funicello herself never wore one.
In 1964 Sport Illustrated inaugurated their annual Swimsuit Issue with a model in a bikini on the cover. By ’67 even that staunch defender of middle class propriety, Time reported, “65% of the young set had already gone over,” to the bikini.
Of course America still is behind Europe. The monokini will not be seen at your local beach and even the Brazilian thong bikini, standard around the world, is still relatively rare on these shores.