by Grandin Donovan
Brigitte Bardot on the silver screen. Sophia Loren on the sands of Cannes. Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. Landmarks in modern sex, united by two triangles and a navel-baring brief—the bikini. Few articles of clothing have inspired as much emotion as the bikini: male desire, female envy, feminist and prudish indignation, a wearer's self-esteem—or vulnerability. In bringing more and more flesh into the public eye, the gradual acceptance of the bikini is not just the story of a new style gaining ground, but of a sea change in social sensibilities that allowed women, more than any time before, to show off their sensuality with confidence, and challenge the world to look away.
The bikini turned 60 this year, a fact applauded by the press and documented in a hefty 399-page tome from Assouline. Bikini-style two pieces had existed at least since Roman antiquity, but the story of the modern suit began in the early summer of 1946, when French swimwear designer Jacques Reim introduced "l'Atome."
Heralded as "the smallest swimsuit in the world" in skywriting over Cannes, Reim's tiny two-piece was soon one-upped by an even more revealing suit developed by Parisian engineer Louis Reard. Reard debuted his design on July 5, just days after a mothballed flotilla was nuked off the islands of Bikini Atoll. Taking advantage of the globally televised event, and Reim's premature superlative, Reard also hired a skywriter, and introduced the world to "the bikini—smaller than the world's smallest swimsuit."
The postwar West was not quite ready for the bikini. Reard, unable to find any respectable models willing to wear his design, hired exotic dancer Michele Bernadini to show it to the French fashion press. With string-waisted briefs, a tiny triangle top, visible navel and plenty of cheek, it exposed far more than contemporary two pieces—which used shorts or sheaths, and shelf-bras, and never revealed the navel—did, and indeed far more than most bikinis would until the '70s. Self-appointed bikini expert Judson Rosebush, author of the website, BikiniScience.com, maintains that of all exposed by Reard's bikini, the navel was most controversial. "Reard reverts to less daring designs," writes Rosebush, "but never retreats on the navel."
Heralded as 'the smallest swimsuit in the world' in skywriting over Cannes, Reim's tiny two-piece was soon one-upped by an even more revealing suit developed by Parisian engineer Louis Reard. Taking advantage of the globally televised event, and Reim's premature superlative, Reard also hired a skywriter, and introduced the world to 'the bikini—smaller than the world's smallest swimsuit.'
For years the bikini hovered beyond popular acceptance, worn only by pin-up girls; Life refused to show it until 1949. But things began to change in the '50s: in '51, Marilyn Monroe traded in her old-fashioned two-piece, and in '52, a bikinied, barely-legal Brigitte Bardot started a career-long burn as The Girl in the Bikini, even dropping the top three years later in And God Created Woman.
It was not until the '60s, though, that the bikini truly hit mainstream, boosted by endless media encouragement. Brian Hyland's infuriating yet unforgettable "Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weenie" song dropped in 1960. In '62, Swedish bombshell Ursula "Undress" Andress emerged from the Caribbean as the first Botticelli-Bond girl, and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was first shoved beneath adolescent mattresses. In 1963, and perhaps, most famously, Austrian-American designer Rudi Gernreich—destined to become the rogue of swimwear design—introduced the scandalous "monokini" and the topless maillot, both modeled by mod muse Peggy Moffit.
Exposure increased—or coverage reduced—from the '60s onward. Throughout the '70s, waistlines plunged further below the navel and eventually beyond the hip, as panels for both top and bottom continued to shrink. By the end of the '70s the bikini had been reduced almost to its logical (and legal) minimum. Credited to Gernreich (as is the terribly gauche, window-paned "pubikini"), the string bikini, or thong, had arrived. The late-'70s and early-'80s saw the introduction of the high-hipped "v-kini," as focus shifted from the bust to the hips and glutes. By the '90s the thong, the "ultramini" and other borderline-pornographic designs could be found all over MTV.
In '62, Swedish bombshell Ursula "Undress" Andress emerged from the Caribbean as the first Botticelli-Bond girl, and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was first shoved beneath adolescent mattresses.
These days, designers are heading in reverse, playing around with more coverage, in some cases (our preference, hands-down) decoratively merging the top and bottom with chunky metal rings or just a sexy strip of fabric down the middle. This summer, Cavalli, Celine, and Eres all favored wide-straps in lieu of skimpy strings for architecturally luxurious cutaway effects. Less serious interpretations came via Hermès, Gucci, and Rosa Chá who all wielded graphic patterns and bold color with gusto. And Michael Kors and Luiza Bonadiman took the navel off of display with retro high-waisted suits. However you choose to wear it, it helps to recall what a Vogue editor said of the bikini in its early days: "What it reveals is interesting, what it conceals is essential."
From left, bikinis by Eres, Rosa Chá, and Luiza Bonadiman.
Sixty years on, that classic itty-bitty 2-piece shows almost everything—except its age.