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The History of the Bikini

She was afraid to come out of the locker
she was as nervous as she could be
she was afraid to come out of the locker
she was afraid that somebody would see

Two three four
tell the people what she wore

It was an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
that she wore for the first time today
an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
so in the locker she wanted to stay

Most of us have heard this prophetic old song at some point or other, which was written by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss and first released in June 1960 by Brian Hyland, on second thoughts that may just be showing up my age.  No, my eighteen year old daughter assures me she too has heard the song.  “Duh Mom, there are loads of cover versions, it’s been in movies, don’t you know?” Silly me, I should have known …..

Even in these enlightened times that we live in, the bikini is sure to cause a stir one way or another.  So what exactly are the origins of this itsy bitsy teenie weenie piece of swimwear?

The history of the bikini can be traced back to antiquity. Illustrations of Roman women wearing bikini-like garments during competitive athletic events have been found in several locations. The most famous of them being Villa Romana del Casale.

The modern (I use the word advisedly) version of the bikini came into being when French engineer Louis Réard introduced it in July 1946, borrowing the name for his design from the Bikini Atoll, where post-war testing on the atomic bomb was happening.  The name was devised to usurp a new one piece swimsuit being launched at the same time, which was called the Atome.  Réard hoped that his new swimsuit would ‘explode’ onto the popular fashion scene of the world, his wish certainly came true.  The other symbolic meaning of this swimwear design is “two” in Latin.  The prefix ‘bi’ found at the beginning of the word ‘bikini’ helped solidify the swimwear as being distinctively a two piece creation.

French women welcomed the design but the Catholic Church, some media, and a majority of the public initially thought the design was risqué or even scandalous, umm what on earth would they think about what constitutes the current day bikini? Contestants in the first Miss World beauty pageant wore them in 1951, but the bikini was then banned from the competition. Actress Bridget Bardot drew attention when she was photographed wearing a bikini on the beach during the Cannes Film Festival in 1953. Other actresses, including Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner, also gathered press attention when they wore bikinis. During the early 1960s, the design appeared on the cover of Playboy and Sports Illustrated, giving it additional legitimacy. Ursula Andress made a huge impact when she emerged from the surf wearing what is now an iconic bikini in the James Bond movie Dr. No (1962).

The bikini gradually grew to gain wide acceptance in Western society. According to French fashion historian Olivier Saillard, the bikini is perhaps the most popular type of female beachwear around the globe because of “the power of women, and not the power of fashion”. As he explains, “The emancipation of swimwear has always been linked to the emancipation of women.” By the early 2000s, bikinis had become a US$811 million business annually, and boosted spin-off services like bikini waxing and the sun tanning.

The most expensive swimsuit in the world is a bikini, designed by Susan Rosen and Steinmetz Diamonds.  The bikini is worth $30 million and is made with more than 150 carats of D flawless diamonds, set in platinum.

The first bikini was modelled by French model and nude dancer Michaline Bernardini and was displayed at the Piscine Molitor which was a prominent fashion show back in the day (July 1946).  Reportedly she received 50 000 fan letters as a result.

And ladies remember “it is not a genuine bikini unless it can be pulled through a wedding ring”.

The “bikini” was named after Bikini Island in the Bikini Atoll where they used to test nuclear bombs.

In 1946 Jacques Heim and Louis Reard introduced the bikini swimsuit while the U.S. was doing post-war nuclear tests.

They billed their new swimsuits “smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world”. This was in response to another one-piece swimsuit called the “atome” which was supposed to be the smallest in the world.

Bad pun alert: Since the bikini was even smaller than the atome and it was two pieces instead of one, it was said that the bikini “split the atome”.

However, archaeologists have discovered wall paintings from Ancient Rome of women in clothing that looked like modern bikinis. This would mean that women may have been wearing bikinis a long time ago, before they were supposed to be invented in the 1940s.


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