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Itsy-Bitsy, Teenie-Weenie

A short history of the world’s smallest swimsuit

To quote Steve Rushin, a writer for Sports Illustrated: “We are at a crucial cleavage in the history of the swimsuit.” This July 5 marks the tiny, navel-bearing bikini’s 60th birthday. Sixty years ago, French designer Louis Reard (yes, you were right, the bikini was invented by a man) introduced the smallest bathing suit to the world. The name of the tiny suit seems odd; everything says that “unlike the word swimsuit, which is entirely functional and descriptive, the word bikini implies much more about the bikini’s history than it does its purpose.”

Reard is known to have named his creation after Bikini Atoll, an island in the South Pacific used by the United States to test atomic bombs after World War II. The idea was that the public’s anticipated shock and amazement over the creation of the bikini would resemble the shock and amazement of the atomic bomb. Reard thought right. His aim, as he said, was to make a swimsuit so small that it could fit through a wedding ring. If it couldn’t, it wasn’t a bikini. At its inception, the bikini’s size stunned the public, and few women would wear one. It wasn’t until French model-stripper Micheline Bernardini agreed to model the bikini that it became an explosion in the fashion industry and in the world. notes that “most of those who viewed the new swimsuit were equally shocked and titillated by its minimalist style.” And those who were shocked were very shocked. Some women felt that the bathing suit was too scandalous to wear; some conservative countries decided to ban the bikini altogether. In the Miss World contest, women who wore the hot new two-piece were thought to have gained extra points as a result, which ultimately caused bikinis to be cut from the list of acceptable swimwear for beauty pageants.

Many felt that the craze over the bikini was going to be short-lived, or at least they hoped. No one thought a swimsuit that resembled women’s underwear was going to become such a big hit. Even Modern Girl magazine wrote in 1957 that “it is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is unconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.” But those who wished the little swimsuit would just go away had no idea what force of nature they were up against: pop culture.

The bikini was popularized by Brigitte Bardot who, in the same year as the Modern Girl article, wore one in And God Created Woman. After that, the bikini was seen all over the big screen. In the ’60s, Annette Funicello, the ex-Mouseketeer, couldn’t get enough of the bikini in her seven beach-themed movies with Frankie Avalon; Ursula Andress wore a belted bikini as a Bond girl in Dr. No; and Raquel Welch wore a fur bikini in One Million Years B.C. Even Carrie Fisher, as Princess Leia, wore a bikini in Return of the Jedi. And the bikini phenomenon wasn’t limited to the big screen; it found its way into pop music, too. Come on, you all know the words . . . to “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” recorded in 1960 by Brian Hyland. In 1993, women volleyball players, including Misty May, Kerri Walsh, and Gabrielle Reece helped start the “sports bikini” craze.

Today, the bikini makes such a strong presence come warm weather that it seems as though it’s been around forever. Every year before summer arrives, magazines, newspapers, television shows and the like all help to call attention to the bikini. In the current issue of Cosmopolitan, one of their features is “100 love-your-body bikinis.” NBC’s Today just did a segment called “Get Ready for Bikini Season With Our Diet Plan.” And, if you want to win a bikini contest, Elle Magazine is hosting a “60 Summers of the Bikini Sweepstakes.”

Since its creation, the bikini has gotten smaller and smaller (which is hard to believe considering that in its original state, it could fit through a wedding ring). But since its early years, the bikini has gone from a few inches of fabric to almost no fabric at all with the creation of the string and thong bikinis. There is also the monokini (just the bottom part of the bikini for all those women who enjoy going topless) and the mikrokini (you might as well not wear anything).

So, girls, as you’re shopping for a bikini this summer, and see your reflection in the mirror while you are trying it on, you now know who to curse out: Louis Reard. And boys, you now know who to thank.

—Leah Rizzo


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