A History of the Bikini

What started a simple swim wear became a type of clothing important to women’s sports. The Bikini is a two piece swimsuit for women that contains a top (bra)  and underwear that is cut below the navel. This type of clothing can range from different sizes being smaller (thong or G-string)  or a much larger model. The bikini at fist was not popular among women, but that later changed. As women entered into the sports world the bikini became a part of women’s sports wear. Sports such as volleyball, bodybuilding,  and even other athletics. The swimwear has become an icon unto itself. This type of clothing accentuates the female figure and in the beginning there was resistance from the more socially conservative elements of society. Combined with that backlash and the low popularity in the initial stages, it seemed as if the Bikini would disappear. The situation would reverse and now you can see women wearing bikinis on beaches or sporting events.

             The  modern bikini was developed  by Louis Reard (1897-1984).  He was by trade an automobile engineer and clothes designer. Reard was French, born in a period in which the nation was a colonial empire.   He took over his mother’s lingerie business in 1940. For that point he had to teach himself about designing clothes. One day going to St. Topaz he noticed women were attempting to get tans by rolling up the edges of their swimwear. Reard then got the idea that their should be a swim suit with the midriff exposed. There were other designers working on a swim suit similar to his. Jacques Heim produced what he called the “Atome” in 1946.  The name for the swim wear could have come from the South Pacific Bikini Atoll. There the US conducted tests for the first nuclear weapons. Using the name atome or bikini was a way of saying it was going to send shock waves. It appears there was not one creator. There were cases prior to 1946 in which had swimwear similar to the early bikini. There were two piece swim suits  that existed in classical antiquity.

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The new ‘Bikini’ swimming costume  Micheline Bernardini was the first to model in the modern bikini .
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Here Carrie Simmons poses in a bikini. Today bikini designs are more elaborate and colorful.

Some tile mosaics discovered from the period of Roman civilization show women wearing something similar to a bikini. At the very least these were two piece swim suits. If this early swim wear is to be counted as a bikini then it would technically be 1,7000 years old.  When examining the Villa Romana del Casale  it shows women exercising in what looks like bikinis. These mosaics are dated 300 AD. It was belived this was more comfortable exercising in than women’s standard wear during the classical period. At that time it did not cause a uproar. There are also archaeological finds in Anatolia ( modern Turkey) which show women in swim suits dated 5600 B.C.E  and also depict a mother goddess. Urns found from Greco-Roman civilization dated 1400 B.C.E also show women wearing bikini like garments. There is little information historians and archaeologist have on the opinions on the swim suits women wore. The level of acceptance or repudiation remains ambiguous given the limited information.  When the 20th century arrives then there was social resistance to the bikini . Religious groups and some feminist organizations. There were religious groups in the US who said it was immoral for a woman to display their body. Certain feminist organizations complained  that it objectified women. There were bikini contests that emerged and sometimes they were apart of beauty pageants. However, there were some cases in which beauty pageants banned the bikini. It was considered too lascivious for the more conservative public.

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Sales of the bikini performed better in France during the mid-20th century. It took the rest of the world awhile to catch up. The exposure of women’s navel caused controversy among some people. Modesty and the covering of the female body has been promoted in more conservative societies. The female body was either at times covered or confined under the supervision of male authority. The bikini for some women became a symbol of liberation from male control of their bodies. Kelly Bensimon  has said that it was a symbol of female expression. The former model and author of the Bikini Book  stated “it gave a lot of people confidence.” She describes the clothing’s appeal as “it celebrates all people athletes, models, dancers, and real people. Benismon says the bikini has stood the test of time mainly because it was associated with scandal. Gradually, society realized that there was nothing indecent about bikinis. It takes time for society to accept new ideas or things. Bikini23

When celebrities began wearing bikinis, it gained some acceptance. Actresses ad models began wearing them in glamour shots. This became common in the 1950s with movie stars such as Mirylin  Monroe and Ester Williams.  Celebrities like it or not are trend setters and continue to influence fashion styles. Celebrities had some freedom to navigate more strict social and cultural mores. The process was slow, but the bikini became more popular. Around the 1960s   the bikini sky rocketed in popularity among women. Mainly because certain bans on the swimwear were bring lifted. Italy, Portugal, Australia, and certain states in the US had either bans or certain restrictions directed at the bikini. The National League of Decency in the US was a culprit of not only banning clothing, but other forms of entertainment in their perspective was “profane.”   Groups like that could not survive the coming of the Sexual Revolution. The relations between the sexes changed, women were gaining reproductive rights,  and women found more liberation in having control of their sexual relationships. Sex was not seen as a negative thing or just for the sake of having children. It could be for the pleasure of both men and women. The result of this was that women’s bodies were no longer viewed as “indecent.” Women could wear what they wanted without causing a moral panic.

           Some have claimed that the evolution of swimwear correlated with women’s emancipation. The earlier swimwear was more confined and designed to restrict movement. This was common for women’s clothes throughout history, because it was once considered improper for women to be involved in physical activity. The rise of the sports bra for example was revolutionary, because it allowed women to compete in sports with comfort. Women with larger bust size may have been driven away from sport prior to its creation. The bikini made it so women became more confident in the display of their bodies. Oliver Saillard a history of fashion postulated the relation between the bikini and gender politics as this : “the power of women, not the power of fashion.” He delineates it as women imposing influence on something as a representation of women’s growing power in society. Women were no longer ashamed or afraid of their bodies. The bikini seemed to be a link in not just a political emancipation, but a social and cultural one. There is the counter argument that seeing as it was made by men, it is questionable whether or not it is liberating. Even with that fact  it seems women made the swimwear their own by becoming designers themselves and ushering in new styles.

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These are examples of swimwear from the late 19th century to early 20th century.
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The modern day bikini reveals more of the female figure.

The bikini would not just be worn by beach goers it would later find its way into women’s sports. This seemed like a natural progression, because women were entering the world of professional sports at the international and national level. It was clear that certain clothing would be brought with them.

The bikini also has been present in women’s sports. Beach volleyball, bodybuilding, and surfing. There some instances that track and field athletes have bikini bottoms. The most common association of the bikini with sport is with bodybuilding. Muscular women oil up and tan then pose in various contests. Female bodybuilding did evolve from bikini contests. These contests were more so modeled after beauty pageants because it did not emphasize muscle size, posing, shape, or definition. These were supplements to men’s events that rook place from the 1950s to mid-1970s. Women were entering sports in larger numbers during the early Title IX era and it was a matter of time that women demanded their own competitions. The Ms.Olympia contest (1980-2014) emerged and the National Amateur Bodybuilding Association (NBBA) allowed women to compete. There are some restrictions on what type of bikini can be worn. Women are forbidden to wear thongs or t back swimsuits in contests in America. The reason is that certain contests could be filmed for television and organizations rather not face an FCC fine. However, closed events allow it, because it will not be broadcast. Europe seems to be more liberal in this regard, while America is more conservative.

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Britt Miller poses in a thong. She could not get on stage with it if her contest she was in was being filmed for US television.
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Yeon’s bikini falls into proper regulations set by the IFBB.

Volleyball has made the bikini as its official uniform. It was 1994 that the bikini became the official uniform for the Women’s Olympic Volleyball team. Then in 1999 the International Volleyball Federation standardized it and made it a requirement for all women in volleyball. This does have some problems. Cold weather makes it uncomfortable for women to wear and women may object to the uniforms due to religious beliefs. There were changes in 2012 allowing shorts and sleeveless shirts. There a more criticisms about the bikini being the uniform. Some sports journalists say that it distracts attention away from the actual game and just puts emphasis on how attractive the women are, rather than their athletic talent.Feminists claim it objectifies athletes and diminishes the attention on their accomplishments. This may not be due to the clothing itself, but the institutional sexism that has been a part of sport since its birth. It is odd that some feminist critics never raise similar complaints about the bodybuilding sports. Although it appears athletes like the uniforms because it gives more free range in terms of movement , others experience discomfort. Chafing and constant fiddling with bikini bottoms can cause irritation.

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This problem can be solved by use of different fabrics  and adjusting the size of the bikini bottom itself. If the athletes enjoy using them as a uniform, they should remain. If it causes too much of a problem then women should bring it up as an issue. Gabrielle Reece had stated she was not content with the bikini uniform requirement, who preferred  her tights instead. Some athletes  believed that this was just done to make the uniforms look skimpier. The frustration can be understood, but other athletes in different sports have dissenting opinions. Female bodybuilders do embrace the scantily clad bikini and skimpy image, but present it in a radically different manner. They combined a new paradigm of beauty, while combining it with the older concepts of glamour. Added to that was power and grace of a posing routine. This made for a fascinating and eclectic mix of concepts.

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It is amazing to think that just a simple piece of clothing can cause such reactions. The bikini has been experimented with in track and field. Florence Griffith Joyner ushered in a style in which she used both bikini bottoms and one legged tights at the 1988 Olympics. It seemed as if Joyner got more attention for her clothing selection than her 200 meter event. There are some sports organizations that specifically ban the bikini bottom and demand athletes wear shorts instead. The West Asian Games implemented this policy in 2006. Running in a bikini top would be impractical, but the bikini bottom seems to make more sense. Shorts or long pants may cause more pressure added to wind resistance when running at high speeds. A study on this subject has not been conducted, but it is a possibility. The bikini is also a common form of sports wear in surfing. Sometimes women who compete in surfing also participate in bikini contests. There is controversy in this seeing as usually more money is offered for the bikini contest.

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 The bikini caused controversy with the general public and even in the sports world. Prior to the introduction in the sports arena, it was not seen as acceptable. Sports Illustrated changed this by featuring women in bikinis on its front cover 1964. Now, they have issues devoted to women in swim wear. The bikini later became the most popular piece of swim wear not just in the West, but globally.

         The 1960s and 1970s saw the bikini rise in popularity. With a golden age comes a decline. The bikini lost popularity in the 1980s. It’s original developer Reard died during that time and his company closed a couple of years after his death. Around the early 21st century there was a spike in sales again. The market was mostly teenage women and women over the age of 30. The sudden resurrection could be attributed to baby boomers increased interest in fitness. The desire to recapture youth  and improve their appearance. Baby boomers were thinking  that age was just a number. There was also a negative side to this. The concern was that the obsession with the bikini body would take a toll on women’s mental and physical health. Eating disorders or mental distress from body image was a problem growing among many young women. The bikini cannot be completely to blame for these developments. A conjecture could be that it was the product of a neoliberal capitalist consumer culture. It functions on people’s insecurities attempting to keep the public constantly buying products. Whatever  the root of the problem could be, the solution is not a simple one. The modern bikini has lasted some 70 years. Currently there are various types to choose from : sling bikini, string bikini, micro bikini, skirtiki,  bandeaukini, monokini, tankini, and trikini.

Further Reading

Westcott, Kathryn. “BBC NEWS | In Depth | The Bikini: Not a Brief Affair.”BBC News. BBC, 05 July 2006. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5130460.stm&gt;.

“Bikini.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 23 June 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bikini#cite_note-193&gt;.

Moos, Jeanne. “STYLE Bikini Blues — Beach Volleyball Makes the Swimsuit Standard.” CNN. Cable News Network, 13 Jan. 1999. Web. 23 June 2016. <http://www.cnn.com/STYLE/9901/13/vollyball.bikini/&gt;.

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A History of the Bikini

5 thoughts on “A History of the Bikini

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