It’s coming up to summer (finally!) and we’re starting to feel the effects of it. The sun is (occasionally) shining over here in the UK, people have got their arms and legs out from underneath all the winter layers, and I’ve even had the occasion to pull out a bikini top to sit in the garden once or twice over the past few weeks. We’ve also got sunny summer holidays and late summer honeymoons coming up, so swimwear is something that’s been on our minds a lot recently.
As such, we’ve been thinking about the history of this iconic garment: when it came about, how, and why. Did you know just how closely the bikini is tied to the freedom and rights women have experienced over time? Olivier Salliard, a French fashion historian, has been credited as saying:
“The emancipation of swimwear has always been linked to the emancipation of women.”
So before we dive into our upcoming swimwear reviews (and I promise, there are still more wedding posts to come too!) let’s delve a little bit further into the history of the bikini.
The bikini was “invented” in 1913
Back in 1900, women were finally granted entry into the Olympic games. Held in Paris, only 2.2% of the competitors, 22 to be precise, were women, and they could only compete in tennis and golf as individual disciplines. Things have changed a lot since then, but what does this have to do with the invention of the modern day bikini?
It was twelve years later, in 1912, when female swimming was introduced into the Olympics that things started to change. The bulky and loose fitting swimsuits were the only option for swimwear and these weighed the swimmers down. Inspired by this, over the course of the next year Carl Jantzen designed and created the first real two piece swimwear – a form fitting suit that was essentially T shirt and shorts.
As a Classics graduate though, I do have to throw in there that depictions of garments that resemble bikinis have been seen in Roman artwork dating back to around 300 AD, Greek urns as far back as 1400 BC and even in the Chalcolithic era on depictions of the mother-goddess of Çatalhöyük as far back as 5600 BC.
The disappearing fabric
Over the next couple of decades, swimwear stayed much the same until the 1930s when, mysteriously, the fabric started to disappear. First the back of the swimsuit got lower, then necklines start to creep downwards; sleeves disappeared, and gradually a slither of skin appeared at the midriff.
This is credited as being due to the rationing of fabric during the Second World War, however the evidence also shows that tanning had become a “thing” during this time thanks to Coco Chanel. The straps were able to be lowered for tanning and new fabrics such as latex and nylon meant they could be even more form fitting than ever before.
The first bikini that was truly recognisable as such to modern eyes were designed in the late 1940s. The Atome, named after the smallest particle of matter thanks to its minimalist design, was created in May 1946 by a French designer, Jacques Heim, in the town of Cannes.
It has a name!
Not long after the atome was released, a Parisian engineer designed an even smaller swimsuit and gave it the name Bikini Atoll. Louis Reard ran his mother’s lingerie business and had noticed women pulling their old swimsuits to and fro in order to get a better tan. His design revealed the navel of the wearer for the first time and shocked people around the world. It was made out of only 30in of fabric in 4 simple triangles.
Due to the slightly shocking nature of the garment, he couldn’t find anyone to model it so ended up hiring a nude dancer from the Casino de Paris. The press conference happened just 5 days after the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll, giving the iconic design its name.
There was some competition between the Atome and the bikini in their early days, with Heim hiring a skywriter to advertise the “world’s smallest bathing suit” in the skies above the Mediterranean. Reard retaliated with his own message of “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit”. The later ad campaign that said a bikini was only a bikini if it could be pulled through a wedding ring.
In 1951, the design gained global attention when the contestants at the first Miss World pageant wore bikinis. Interestingly, It wasn’t until 1960 that the bikini had its first feature on the cover of Playboy.
The Itsy Bitsy
The Itsy Bitsy bikini, sometimes known as the micro bikini, is the design that continues to endure. With tanning as popular as it’s ever been during the 1980s, this revealing design with high cut legs, low coverage and G strings came over from Brazil and was adopted worldwide. This allows for absolute maximum tanning potential but is tricky to wear – read this guide on how to wear microkinis if you need more information.
Since the 1940s, the popularity of the bikini has come a long way. You can’t visit a swimming pool or a beach without spotting one – in fact, 90% of the swimwear you see in these situations will be a bikini. The design has changed frequently over the years so that you can now get bikinis in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, including those designed to fit full busts, plus sizes and more, as well as string bikinis, strapless, high neck, high leg and so much more.
This is a collaborative post with Haute Flair.