The History: A study in the development of the Bikini

Pictured above two women are escorted off the beach by a policewoman in Chicago circa 1922 for violating public decency laws. 

By EMILY KIMBELL, Newnan-Coweta Historical Society

When Brian Hyland released his hit song Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini in June 1960, the concept of the bikini swimsuit was relatively new.

A stark contrast from modern society, his lyrics depict the newness and discomfort of women trying out the latest fashion — “She was afraid to come out of the locker. She was as nervous as she could be. She was afraid to come out of the locker. She was afraid that somebody would see.”

The invention of the bikini in the 1940s was seen as incredibly scandalous as the idea of a women’s visible navel was thought to be shocking. While 20th-century women were hesitant to embrace the idea of wearing such limited clothing in public, the history of women’s swimwear reveals a surprising past. Before the 18th century, the concept of a bathing suit or swimwear was non-existent, making it relatively common for people to swim either in their underwear or completely nude. With the rise of travel technology and particularly, the advent of the railroad making travel to beaches more possible, the need for more modest swimwear arose. The bathing gown became popular considering the rise in popularity of “sea bathing.” The bathing gown was a long shift-style dress fitted with lead weights at the hem to ensure the gown did not rise improperly while immersing in the water. 

In the early 19th century, sun-bathing and swimming became more of a popular leisure activity rather than a health-related activity creating a need for change in style. Women’s swimwear became tighter and more form-fitting than the bathing gown; however, modesty and proper behavior remained the forefront of design. During this time, bathing suits often consisted of a bathing dress plus drawers and stockings made of wool, linen, cotton. These fabrics were not conducive for hot weather, and the fabrics would become too heavy for women to even engage in swimming activities. 

Bathing Dresses- An advertisement for bathing dresses published in the 1860s by Godey’s Lady’s Book shows the popular women’s swimwear of the time. 

The bathing suit continued to alter in appearance throughout the 1900s and experienced a drastic change when women were first permitted to swim competitively on the world stage. Annette Kellerman from Australia revolutionized social attitudes toward swimming when she wore a tight-fitting swimsuit that showed off the lower half of her legs to perform in front of the British Royal Family in 1905. She faced accusations of violating modesty standards inspiring her to sew black stockings onto her existing swimsuit. When competing in Boston in 1907, Kellerman again was accused of indecent exposure and arrested for wearing a one-piece suit that showed off her arms and legs; however, a judge agreed with her stance that heavy, ill-fitting swimwear was not a practical garment for swimming. While her highly publicized incident caused some change in public perception, it also caused other organizations, government departments, and police to more so enforce strict swimwear policies. 

Annette Kellerman is shown in her infamous one-piece suit circa 1900.

After Kellerman’s public incident, women’s swimwear began to change drastically and quickly. In the 1910s, bathing suits started showing more skin with “v” or “u” shaped necklines and skirt bottoms. After the invention of lastex yarn in 1931 which revolutionized swimwear, wool swimwear was replaced by the more practical fabric that kept its shape in and out of water. The two-piece swimwear concept started in Europe in the 1930s with women wearing halter tops and shorts that showed a sliver of the midriff. In the 1940s, a shortage of resources during World War II caused the government to call for a ten percent reduction in fabric content for women’s swimwear and modest two-piece suits made their appearance in the United States. 

In 1946, two competing French designers, Jacques Heim and Louis Réard, designed and introduced prototypes of the bikini. Jacques Heim marketed his suit as the “Atom” publicized as the “world’s smallest bathing suit.” However, it was Réard’s bikini, named after the Bikini Atoll Island which months before the swimwear’s introduction was the site of the first nuclear bomb test, that gained the most popularity and became the namesake of the new style. 

Réard debuted his design of a bra top with a triangle bottom on July 5 with Micheline Bernardini modeling the two-piece. The swimwear was met with controversy and inspired bans from public wear in some countries; however, the design started gaining in popularity. In the 1950s and 1960s, the emphasis on liberation made the bikini a mainstay in Europe and brought the bikini to the United States. After Bridget Bardot wore a bikini in the 1952 French film Manina, The Girl in the Bikini, the bikini started to gain in popularity. Now immortalized through songs, film and media, and pop culture, the popularity of the bikini continued to grow and is now a staple in mainstream society. 

Newnan-native, Emily Kimbell is the director of the Newnan-Coweta Historical Society and McRitchie-Hollis Museum. Emily is currently finishing her doctoral studies at Georgia State University, where she also teaches English Composition courses and is an active member of her community often seen on stage in local theatre productions and writing for local media outlets.  

Micheline Bernardini models the first bikini at the Piscine Molitor in Paris on July 4, 1946 – a date now known as National Bikini Day.

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