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The Tiny Swimsuit That Rocked the World

A History of the Bikini

It seems somewhat amazing that the bikini, that sexily scant swimsuit that has become such a cultural icon in the U.S. and elsewhere, could have been in existence for only a mere 60 years. Surely the outfit that has so completely taken over America?s beaches and swimming pools and become such an entrenched part of its culture has a longer history than just six decades. Interestingly enough, depending upon how one defines the term ?bikini,? it actually has a history that reaches back thousands of years. While the name ?bikini? has been in existence only since 1946, the popular two-piece swimsuit that embodies that name has actually existed since about 1600 B.C. What follows is the fascinating history of the bikini, from its ancient origins to its modern, unabashed style.

The Ancient Bikini

The bikini?s history begins far back in early civilization. Based on evidence from Roman mosaics and murals, historians have long believed that the bikini was popular swimming attire for ancient Roman women. In a time when cultural and moral norms were much more lax than they are today, the bikini was right at home. However, some historians believe that the bikini was actually in existence long before ancient Rome. In recent decades, cave excavators have discovered Minoan wall paintings from approximately 1600 B.C. that show a two-piece outfit strikingly similar to the modern-day bikini (Lencek & Bosker 1989). In the paintings, women involved in a type of gymnastic exercise are wearing costumes that could easily be mistaken for twentieth century bikinis. This rendition of the bikini from more than 3,600 years ago attests to its tremendous staying power in popular fashion.

?The World?s Smallest Bathing Suit?

Although archaeological evidence points to the existence of the bikini long before the twentieth century, documented history of the modern bikini begins the summer after the close of World War II. As France recovered from the reeling effects of the war on its home soil, Jacques Heim, a fashion designer from the popular beach resort of Cannes, was busily working on his latest style invention, a two-piece swimsuit of a very revealing nature. Heim debuted his creation in a local beach shop in the early summer of 1946. He named the swimsuit the ?Atome? in honor of the recently discovered atom, the smallest particle of matter yet detected. He then sent skywriters over Cannes? beaches, announcing that the Atome, ?the world?s smallest bathing suit,? was now available for purchase (Lencek & Bosker 1989).

Heim may have become more than just a small footnote in the bikini?s history if it were not for the timely invention and superior christening skills of a French mechanical engineer turned swimsuit designer, Louis Reard. Just three weeks after Heim unveiled his Atome creation, Reard brought out a remarkably similar swimsuit to be sold along the French Riviera. His swimsuit also contained just two scant pieces of cloth that revealed a woman?s back and navel for the first time in the modern era. Reard named his swimsuit the ?bikini,? taking the name from the Bikini Reef, one of a series of islands in the South Pacific where testing on the new atomic bomb was occurring that summer (Lencek & Bosker 1989).  Historians assume Reard termed his swimsuit the ?bikini? because he believed its revealing style would create reactions among people similar to those created by America?s atomic bomb in Japan just one summer earlier. Whether this was his true reason or not, the bikini name stuck, and Reard went down in history as the inventor of the popular two-piece swimsuit.

Outlawed and Embraced

Reard?s bikini was introduced to U.S. markets in 1947, just one year after its debut in France. While consumers were certainly curious about the scandalously small amount of fabric that comprised the bikini, initial sales of the swimsuit were slow. Many Americans were shocked by its scantiness, and the bikini was even outlawed as a form of public attire in many U.S. cities (Alac 2001). It would be nearly 20 years, at the dawning of the sexual and moral revolution in the late 1960s, before American women truly embraced the bikini. But after that, there would be no turning back. American women--and men--began a love affair with the bikini that has lasted to this day.

At most beaches and swimming pools, the bikini is by far the most popular swimsuit style worn today. Of course, the bikini has gone through several style evolutions during its 60-year history, ranging from the outrageous topless monokini of the 1960s to the more modest tankini of recent years. However, its timeless style and surprisingly flattering fit make it understandable why the bikini has been worn in one form or another since ancient Roman times.

-- Posted May 1, 2007

References

Alac, Patrik. 2001. Bikini: A Cultural History. Parkstone Press USA, ltd.

Lencek, Lena and Bosker, Gideon. 1989. Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America. Chronicle Books.