Why the bikini became a fashion classic

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(Credit: Getty Images)
When the string bikini was launched in 1946, it became an instant sensation. Katya Foreman explains how the tiny garment became a design icon.

Who would have thought that the name of a remote Pacific atoll, site of atom bomb testing in the late 1940s, could have become wedded in the public mind to one of the sexiest and most enduring clothing items of the summer? Marking an atypical career trajectory, French mechanical engineer-turned bikini designer, Louis Réard, known as the godfather of the garment’s modern-day incarnation, is said to have come up with the moniker in a wink to its tiny size yet explosive impact, with the term ‘bombshell’ adopted as a popular reference for the ladies in these revealing swimsuits.

The story goes that Réard, who had taken over his parents’ lingerie business in Paris, entered into competition with fashion designer Jacques Heim to produce the world’s smallest two-piece,having observed women on the beaches in Saint-Tropez rolling up the edges of their swimsuit bottoms while tanning. (The first functional two-piece is said to have been invented by swimwear designer Carl Jantzen in 1913).

Harnessing his technical skills to reduce the proportions and fabric of the fledgling two-piece, in 1946 Réard launched the string bikini, honed from four triangles of fabric and fastened with spaghetti ties. He recruited a nude dancer from the Casino de Paris to model the creation, causing a cultural explosion. For the first time, radically, bikini bottoms dropped below the navel.

Réard’s skimpy design cut a stark contrast to the cumbersome tunics and bloomers worn by women at the beach only decades earlier. The shrewd marketer’s less-is-more advertising campaigns for the creation claimed that a two-piece bathing suit wasn’t a bona fide bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.”

(Photo: Rex Features)

(Photo: Rex Features)

Of course, bikinis per se have been around much longer – a mosaic known as Bikini Girls found in a 4th century Roman villa in Sicily depicts women frolicking in revealing two-piece costumes. Heftier than their modern counterparts (the garments, that is), they were probably made of fine leather – not so good in the water, but is that the point? Just as the Roman emperor Maximilian (the likely commissioner of the mosaics) was more interested in viewing nubile bodies, so today bikinis, those triumphs of textile engineering, are predominantly for the delights of display.

Curves on film

The design evolution of the bikini traces the emancipation of women, as a symbol of liberty and body confidence, with generations of silver screen icons helping to stoke its myth. Significant moments include the 1956 French film, And God Created Woman, where all that stood between the audience and Brigitte Bardot’s private parts were some brief cuts of fabric, and, of course, original Bond girl Ursula Andress’s white bikini moment in Dr. No (1962). Sporting a matching army knife belt, replete with dagger, Andress, as she emerged dripping from the water (a scene later emulated by Halle Berry in Die Another Day), epitomised the femme fatale. Andress auctioned off the bikini at Christie’s in London in 2001, raising $61,500 (£35,000),sagging slightly below estimations.

US magazine Sports Illustrated published its first swimsuit edition in 1964, the same year in which avant-garde Austrian-born American fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, an open nudist, gay activist and sexual liberation advocate, introduced the controversial topless one-piece – the monokini – modelled by Peggy Moffitt. It went down a storm in the liberal 70s, though Gernreich’s prediction that the "bosom will be uncovered within five years" never came to fruition.And the monokini’s younger sister, the delightfully named pubikini (a bikini brief sporting a v-shaped cut-out that exposed the pubic area), released in 1985, also failed to catch on.

Today the term monokini refers to bikini bottoms worn without a bikini top, though a skimpier version of the original lives on in the catalogues of Victoria’s Secret: the Half-Kini, comprised of skimpy bottoms that extend into a slim, sculpted central panel of fabric that ends in strings to tie around the neck, leaving the breasts exposed. It’s the kind of look that could go down well in Rio de Janeiro, whose vocation for provocative bathing wear has been traced back to a brouhaha caused in 1948 by three Argentine girls who sunbathed on the beach wearing two-piece bathing suits.

String variations

The past few decades have delivered a volley of new takes on the bikini: from the tankini, pairing a bandeau (a strapless top) with bikini bottoms, to the Brazilian thong, the sartorial equivalent of dental floss. There are triangle tops, tie-tops, and halter-tops, and for below, t-strings, g-strings and V-strings (Victoria’s Secret-branded g-strings), offering subtle design variations at the rear. Nowadays anything goes, be it a skimpy yellow polka dot number, a sporty style à la Lara Croft, or a big-bottomed, pin-up design evoking Hollywood screen sirens.

Recent years have seen a return to more covered up, retro styles in swimwear, and an increased appetite for the one-piece. In a world where celebrities visit malls wearing swimsuits (I’m looking at you, Rihanna) – the more covered up look is an antidote for those jaded by the shock factor.

So simple yet so powerful, ultimately it is the bikini’s enduring ability to deliver a big impact – a strong social or fashion statement – in such a brief space of material that makes it a design icon, reflecting changing morphologies and vogues through its ever-shifting cuts and finishes.

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