The modern history of the bikini begins in 1946 when the first bikini-style swimsuit was revealed in France to a shocked and titillated crowd. During the summer of 1946, today’s very popular two-piece swimsuit was simultaneously created and named by two French fashion designers. While both designers produced a similar product, it would be Louis Reard’s invention (christened the “bikini” after the famed Bikini Reef) that would become the world’s official smallest bathing suit. At its debut, the bikini produced quite a stir in both France and the larger world. Because it was so much more revealing than its swimsuit predecessors, Reard was unable to find a French model who was willing to showcase the swimsuit. Out of desperation, he was forced to hire Micheline Bernardini, a Parisian woman with a history of nude dancing.
Many Americans were shocked by the skimpy attire French women were parading around in and believed the bikini would never gain popularity in the more conservative United States. The bikini, with its bare midriff and back, was seen as simply too scandalous for American women. While the new swimsuit style would enter American boutiques and markets only one year after its invention, it was only moderately popular. The social climate of post-war America was not quite ready for such revealing attire.
As a matter of fact, several women were arrested for donning bikinis on public beaches during the late 1940s and 1950s!
While it would take several years to gain widespread popularity (due to its scandalous nature), the freedom of expression and flexibility of style the bikini offered would soon make it a true icon of American fashion.
Throughout the nearly sixty years since its debut, the bikini has gone through several transformations. The original bikinis of the 1940s and 1950s were generally fairly modest, with high-cut bottoms that covered the navel. Very little of the midriff and back was revealed, especially compared to today’s low-rise, rio-cut bikinis.
During the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the bikini became more and more revolutionary in its style. It was also during this decade that the bikini began to experience record sales, as it became an important part of youth pop culture.
In the late 1960s, the shocking topless bikini or “monokini” was introduced by avant-garde fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, consisting only of a bottom and two thin straps of support.
While this style of bikini never garnered widespread popularity, it would become a forerunner of future wild and scandalous bikini innovations.
Throughout later decades, the bikini continued to mature in style, as American and Brazilian manufacturers began to push the envelope to see just how much skin could be revealed in a bikini. The 1970s saw the introduction of the revealing string bikini, a style that remains popular today. In the 1980s, the thong bikini emerged on the fashion scene, claiming origin in the tribal clothing of Amazonian Brazil. More modern bikini designers have built upon such fashion revolutions, maintaining the string bikini and thong bikini and adding the new tankini (a long tank-style top paired with bikini bottoms) and bandini (a bikini using a bandeau-style top) to the ever-growing selection of bikini swimwear.
Today, the bikini has become one of the most popularly worn and requested swimsuit styles. Fashion designers have created hundreds of variations to work with every body type and comfort level.
In fact, the bikini has become such an important part of popular American culture that in 1997, Sports Illustrated devoted its first entire issue in the history of the magazine to the bikini swimsuit.
While its early history may not have denoted instant success, the bikini is clearly here to stay.
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