The scandalous history of the bikini

From the 1940s to today: how the bikini became a beach staple.

Scandalous history of the bikini

The bikini might be a beach staple for most of us, but this wasn’t always the case.

In fact, the skimpy two-piece bathing suit made its debut to much controversy, taking a while before everyone embraced it. Since its inception in the 1940s, it has slowly but surely grown in popularity, and been transformed by different styles, cuts and colours as trends evolved.

Of course, bikinis will always compete with the one-piece bathing suit, but there’s a reason it’s the star of the beach. Here’s how the bikini came to be.

Early beginnings
One of the first bikinis is credited to French designer and engineer Louis Reard, who reportedly debuted the style in 1946, and had trouble finding models because the look was deemed ‘scandalous’. This was a time when women were more covered up at the beach. While the long-sleeved woollen bathing suits from the early 1900s were long gone, swimsuits revealing your navel were practically unheard of.

Mr Reard’s bikini wasn’t the first two-piece swimsuit to be designed, but it was one of the first to show so much skin, and the name he chose stuck. His invention came at the perfect time: World War II had just ended, and a bit of fun and frivolity was very much welcomed. Plus, there was a post-war fabric shortage, so the bikini was easy enough to produce.

This isn’t to say everyone approved of the new style. As recently as the 1920s, women were having their swimsuits measured on beaches in the US, to make sure they were ‘modest’ enough, and some of these attitudes stuck around.

Changing styles
Like everything in fashion, the bikini has undergone many different styles and trends. In the 1950s, the mainstream was still getting used to the new style, so iterations didn’t look too different to the one-piece swimsuits of the day, with sweetheart necklines, frills and high-waisted bottoms. This was to create an hourglass figure, which was hugely desirable at the time.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the bikini became far more common, and styles became skimpier. Its popularity was cemented in 1960, when Brian Hyland released the song Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini.

Tiny string bikinis were all the rage in the 1970s, and when the ’80s rolled around, it was all about adding colour and patterns – very much in keeping with the bombastic fashion of the day. The ’80s styles favoured high-cut bottoms to show off your hip bones, often paired with high waists.

The 1990s and 2000s brought the bikini back to its original style, favouring string styles with tiny triangles and low-cut tie waists. You have to hand it to the swimsuit – other than small changes, over the decades, it’s been far more consistent than any other garment.

Famous examples
As with any iconic piece of fashion, certain bikinis have become part of the fabric of pop culture.

One of the first examples came in 1952, when Brigitte Bardot starred in the movie The Girl In The Bikini. The swimsuit was still pretty new at this time and hadn’t quite won over the public – but Ms Bardot arguably did a lot to change perceptions. The bikinis she wore in the movie are remarkably similar to current styles, with small triangles of material and low-cut bottoms.

Then, there was Ursula Andress’s bikini in the James Bond movie Dr No in 1962. The plain ivory two-piece had belt buckle detailing, and is so important in fashion history, it even has its own Wikipedia page.

This paved the way for a more recent, iconic bikini moment: Halle Berry in the 2002 Bond movie Die Another Day. In a clear homage to Ms Andress’s bikini, the Halle Berry version is also belted, but this time in a bright orange colour.

The bikini today
Thanks to the rise of reality TV shows set in sun-soaked, exotic locations, bikini styles have become even skimpier. These styles – which have echoes of the eighties as bikini bottom cuts creep up to reveal hip bones – show that bikinis still have the power to shock, as it certainly gets people talking when a particular thong style is shown in the media.

However, it has to be said – you’d be surprised how similar the bikini still is, to how it was in the 1940s.

What do you think of the swimwear that’s popular today?

- With PA

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    To make a comment, please register or login
    22nd May 2020
    some are so skimpy I wonder why some women bother to wear any thing at all.
    22nd May 2020
    This must be a reprint of an American story. You state that as late as 1920 swimsuits were being measured on the beach. If my memory serves me well there were beach inspectors in Australia doing that in the 1960's.
    Horace Cope
    22nd May 2020
    The man to whom you refer was Aub Laidlaw, probably our most famous professional beach inspector. Aub was employed by Waverley Council to police all of the beaches in the municipality but he gained his fame on Bondi Beach where he sent girls in skimpy bikinis off the beach. A good mate took over from Aub and always said that the advice Aub gave him made him a successful beach inspector because apart from the bikini episodes, Aub was popular and made the beach safe for families.
    23rd May 2020
    Paula stafford from Surfers Paradise should be mentioned in this article
    23rd May 2020
    One thing I have noted about womenswear, particularly swimwear, is the less there is of it the more expensive it is to buy. My granddaughter confirmed my suspicion, the skimpier the costlier. However I am glad the 'budgie smuggler' fashion for men never really took off and most blokes still wear trunks.

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