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Photographers clamor to shoot an actress in a bikini at the Cannes Film Festival. Photo: Getty Images
Photographers clamor to shoot an actress in a bikini at the Cannes Film Festival. Photo: Getty Images

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The Story of the Bikini, the World’s Smallest Swimsuit

I’m going to go out on a limb and say you probably don’t expose your belly a whole lot. I don’t know, maybe you do. Maybe you live in a particular part of California that really lends itself to crop tops. Or you only really come alive during Coachella, and spend the rest of the year in hibernation.


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Whatever your particular situation may be, you certainly don't show off your belly as much as you do other body parts, which makes the concept of bikinis kind of fascinating. Very few women need a beautifully tanned belly! There are actually a lot of other body parts that make more sense to tan! And yet, bikinis endure, while other swimsuits that were once considered just as sexy—or sexier!—have fallen away.

When it originally debuted in 1946, the bikini was considered scandalous—and that was the point. The point of bikinis was not you need a tan belly. It was very much intended to shock.

Named after Bikini Atoll, a coral reef in the Marshall Islands where nuclear weapons were tested, Diana Vreeland referred to the new suit as "the atomic bomb of fashion." According to the designer Louis Réard, it was "smaller than the world’s smallest swimsuit" and you were supposed to be able to pull it through a wedding band.

During World War II, high-waisted two-pieces were worn by celebrities (like Betty Grable, right) and regular beach-goers alike. Photos: Getty Images

Now, it wasn’t actually the first two-piece swimsuit. Those had already become popular during the war years, as rationing meant there was less fabric available for swimwear. However, unlike high-waisted '40s two-pieces, the bikini revealed the belly button.

The navel was super shocking at the time. Even as late as 1965, censorship rules meant that a belly button could not be shown on television. This was mostly a problem for the I Dream of Jeannie because it had to be ensured that its star, Barbara Eden, could wear a belly dancer’s costume without revealing her belly button. That’s not something we consider at all now! No one would be stunned if you pulled up your shirt and said, "Hey, take a look at my belly button!" They’d just think you were doing something strange.

If you type in the question, "What’s the difference between a two-piece and a bikini?" (which I did—thank you, Yahoo Answers!) no one even mentions that one shows your sexy, scandalous belly button and the traditional two-piece does not. That may be because we’ve all seen so many people in bikinis, and so many belly buttons as a result, that we forgot they were, a mere 50 years ago, a shocking part of the anatomy.

Still, in 1946, models refused to wear the newly-designed bikini because it was way too shocking. So it was first seen on a French nude dancer, Micheline Bernardini. Bernardini was seen holding up a matchbox in the first photos of the suit to indicate that the bikini was so small it could fit inside a matchbox. As a result of the shoot, she received 50,000 fan letters and moved to America to work as an actress.

Micheline Bernardini models the very first bikini while holding a matchbox in 1946. Photo: Getty Images

The bikini was subsequently declared sinful by the Vatican. It was also banned in France and various US states. In 1957, Modern Girl magazine wrote that, "It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing."

This seems a little ridiculous given that in 1945, a popular swimsuit was called the "Moonlight Buoy." It had a cork buckle attached to the bottom, which meant that a woman could slip out of her suit, tie the top to the bottom, and the whole thing would remain floating atop the water if she wanted to go swimming nude. The ad remarked, "The name of the suit, of course, suggests the nocturnal conditions under which nude swimming is most agreeable."

This is not a swimsuit we see around a lot today.

And speaking of far more scandalous swimwear, in 1964, topless swimsuits (also known as monokinis) were supposed to be the next big thing. Rudi Gernreich, the designer who originally conceived of the chest-exposing one-piece, said that he anticipated that within five years, breasts would be exposed at American beaches. He also claimed that, "Sex is the person, not what she puts on."

An image from a 1964 Life pictorial about topless swimsuits. Photo: Life Magazine

For a few years, Gernreich was right! Copies of the topless swimsuit were sold at Henri Bendel. Brigitte Bardot wore one when she went sunbathing, and Peter Sardsedt sang about one particular monokini-loving, jet-setting sophisticate:

"When you go on your summer vacation

You go to Juan-les-Pins

With your carefully designed topless swimsuit

You get an even suntan, on your back and on your legs, oh, yes you do."

That trend eventually died out, maybe because American Republicans, the Soviet Union, and the Vatican (yes, again with the Vatican) all said it contributed to moral decline. The NYPD was even ordered to arrest any woman seen wearing one! That said, Victoria’s Secret tried to market one again in 2010. The campaign featured model Lindsay Ellingson looking far more covered up than anyone in a 1964 Life photo editorial about topless swimsuits, but it still caused a whole big commotion, because, I don’t know. Breasts! Nipples! Fear of looking bad in front of whoever is supposed to be the new Soviet Union!

The other swimsuit which was supposed to give the bikini a run for its money was the thong swimsuit. You might remember a young Katherine Heigl wearing one if you ever saw that '90s film My Father The Hero. The design, sometimes called a "tanga," originated in the 1970s and became popular in Rio de Janeiro. It took about 20 years to catch on elsewhere in the world, and when it did, it gave rise to the Brazilian bikini. And then, abruptly, it was more or less forsaken for the tankini which exposed approximately as little skin as you would have shown if you were wearing a swimsuit in the 1940s. To be fair, that might be because you can still be arrested for wearing a thong bikini.

Unlike its sexy competitors, the bikini has managed to retain its popularity. The fact that it was able to endure better than any of its similarly scandalous competitors is likely due to its appearance in two movies.

Ursula Andress on the set of Dr. No (left) and Raquel Welch in a publicity shot for One Million Years B.C. (right). Photos: Getty Images

Dr. No, the 1962 Bond film in which Ursula Andress emerges from the waves in a white bikini with a scabbard, caused the sales of bikinis to double. Andress also later noted, "This bikini made me into a success."

However, it took Raquel Welch wearing one in the 1966 film One Million Years B.C. for the bikini to be described as the "definitive look of the 1960s." Weirdly enough, the fact that both of these movies were somewhat rooted in fantasy in a way that say, situations involving topless swimsuits were not, may have actually helped bikinis seem more wearable.

The films seemed to imply that if you slipped on a bikini, you could escape your humdrum life and be an ancient cavewoman fighting for survival, or a sexy spy cavorting with James Bond. You didn’t need to be a sexy sophisticate to wear one, you didn’t even need to know where Jaun-les-Pins is. By 1967, half of young women were said to prefer bikinis, and today $811 million worth of bikinis are sold annually in the US alone.

But then, fashions are always changing. Wait a few years. You might see the Moonlight Buoy back on the market again.


Jennifer Wright is the author of It Ended Badly: The 13 Worst Break-Ups in History, due out fall 2015. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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