It's hard to imagine vacationing on a sunny beach today and not seeing a bikini. The popular swimsuit is an icon of sun worshipers everywhere. Though common today, 65 years ago women wouldn't be seen in public in such a small amount of clothing. Women did wear two-piece swimsuits in the years before and during World War II. In fact, at a time when resources were scarce, two-piece suits helped support the war effort because they were made of less fabric—precious material that could be used to make uniforms and other war goods. Despite their obvious similarities, there was a difference between the two-piece and the bikini: the two-piece covered the navel and was therefore considered decent.
The bikini, though, was meant to be shocking. Louis Réard, the lingerie designer who created the first bikini, wanted to get people's attention and make them talk. Just one week before Réard debuted his swimsuit on a Paris runway, the United States dropped an experimental atomic bomb on Bikini Atoll, a chain of islands in the South Pacific. It was the first atomic test since the end of World War II. Newspapers were filled with reports of the test and it dominated conversations around the world. People believed that the size and strength of this bomb would change life on earth as they knew it. Réard wanted his new swimsuit to have the same effect, and named his creation after the island everyone was talking about. The bikini consisted of a bra-like top and a bottom made of two triangles connected by strings at the hips. It was made from 30 inches of fabric.
Réard created a scandal but, unfortunately for the designer, it was a silent one. His suit was deemed so indecent that people didn't even want to mention it. French fashion magazines, including Vogue and Elle, didn't feature the bikini on their pages, instead praising swimwear that "covers everything that should be covered." It was two years before Vogue would print a photo of a two-piece suit on its pages.
Like their European sisters, American women weren't ready to be so exposed on the beach. American magazines bemoaned the skimpiness of swimwear before the bikini ever materialized. In 1945, a Life article stated, "Even the most proper women appear on beaches in costumes which used to be seen only in the rowdiest of cabarets." Swimwear in this country followed the designs of clothing. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the feminine ideal of the hourglass shape dominated styles. Swimwear contained latex and padding to help women achieve that shape, even when sunning themselves by the pool.
The bikini didn't become a staple on American beaches until the 1960s. At that time, women in the feminist movement rejected rigid clothing styles. Young women wanted sportier suits than those worn by the older generation. The beach movies of the era, starring Annette Funicello and Sandra Dee, helped popularize the bikini. When surfing became trendy with young people, the bikini proved to be a more comfortable suit for the sport. Though the bikinis of the 1960s were more modest and covered more skin, Réard's general design survived the test of time. By the 1980s bikinis would more closely resemble the 1946 version and, in some cases, actually make it look like the more demure outfit.
Greta Anderson, a resident of Topeka, Kansas, owned the bikini shown here. She wore this suit on family swimming trips to the local pool in the 1960s. Its style was common in that era, as it provided more coverage than bikinis that would appear later. Mrs. Anderson donated her iconic suit to the collections of the Kansas Museum of History in 2006.
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: July 2011
Date Modified: December 2014
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