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While most people would associate the bikini with contemporary fashion, its surprising origin dates all the way back to Ancient Rome, where female gymnasts would wear bandeau tops and bikini bottoms. The tumultuous history of the bikini originates as a patriarchal, objectifying story, but has turned into one of celebration, acceptance, and expression in support of one’s body.
Beginning in the early 20th century, women were finally allowed to enjoy public beaches. The strict societal dress code, however, kept them from enjoying their “fun in the sun.” Women were required to wear multiple layers of thick clothing, ranging from pants to long dresses, with weights sewn into the bottom that prevented any bare skin from being exposed. Some women even used what was known as a bathing machine. These were wooden or canvas huts on wheels that women would use to stay hidden from the public when they would go into the water — talk about modesty! In 1907, Australian swimmer and silent film star Annette Kellerman was the first notable woman to combat these restrictive norms by wearing a form-fitting one-piece swimsuit to the beach. Annette, and others like her, were then arrested for their so-called indecent exposure. Regardless of being full coverage, body-hugging swimsuits were considered too scandalous for the public eye. After receiving much backlash from Annette’s case, societal norms shifted and women started to become confident wearing tight swimsuits all over the world!
Moving into the 1940s, swimwear became liberating and women started to bare more skin. Bathing suit designers took advantage of the fabric rationing during WWII, and soon enough the two piece was born. While still covering the belly button, hips, backside, and breasts, the two-piece empowered women to show more skin. In 1949, French engineer Louis Réard introduced the modern bikini, modeled by Micheline Bernardini. By the 1950s and 60s, Hollywood stars began to wear the bikini, prompting Neiman Marcus to declare the bikini the “next big thing.” Popular culture contributed to the bikini’s rise in popularity through music and the media. In 1960, Brian Hyland released the song Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini which elevated the image of the bikini in everyone’s minds. Then, in the 1962 James Bond movie actress Ursula Andress captivated audiences when she emerged from the water in a white bikini. Seeing this influential female character in a bikini allowed women to envision themselves as powerful and sexy individuals. This white bikini is even cited as the most famous bikini of all time and is truly an iconic moment in cinematic and fashion history. In 1964, the male gaze continued to promote the bikini with its first appearance on a Sports Illustrated cover. While greater exposure helped to popularize the bikini in mainstream media, magazines like Sports Illustrated exclusively represented Western beauty standards which are characterized by being tall, White, and skinny. Sports Illustrated and other publications like them chose to reject different body types and beauty standards, promoting the notion that the bikini was meant for only one type of person.
The bikini’s popularity then began to skyrocket. In the latter part of the 20th century, tiny string bikinis became all the rage. Bathing suit designers started to produce bikinis in all different colors, patterns, and designs. Thong bikinis, originally called tangas, first hit the beaches of Brazil in the late 70s and then quickly spread to the US and the rest of the world. Many women found high-cut thong bikinis to be incredibly flattering as they help to create the illusion of a longer, leaner body. This look inspired many women to show off their bodies in a sexy and stylish way, unbound by the limitations of the original full-coverage bikini bottom.
Nowadays, swimwear, especially the bikini, still remains a source of contention. As society pushes to become more inclusive, we must reframe how we think about historically gendered clothing like the bikini. We must think of the question — who can wear the bikini, and is it still as scandalous as it was once perceived? French fashion historian Olivier Saillard said that the bikini is perhaps the most popular type of female swimwear worldwide because of “the power of women, and not the power of fashion…the emancipation of swimwear has always been linked to the emancipation of women.” The history of the bikini is long, controversial and commonly misconstrued, but eventually, the bikini has become a source of bodily empowerment.