Friday, July 5, 2019

The Bikini Debut—A Cultural and Fashion A-Bomb

Michilee Beradini during the shoot for Louis Reard's first Bikini.
On July 5, 1946 war weary France was given something explosive to shake out of the drab and depressing years of Nazi occupation.  Designer Louis Reard  introduced a skimpy new two piece bathing suit whose very abbreviated bottom was cut high on the thigh and well below the belly button.  Since he expected his suit to really shake things up, he named it the Bikini because the Americans had set off a highly publicized Atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific four days earlier.
When it came to the photo shoot, Reard had a hard time finding a model willing to expose herself in the skimpy outfit.  The usual run way and magazine photo models were scared that the scandal would ruin their careers.  Finally he found 18 year old Michilee Beradini, an amateur just trying to break into the business.  She probably did not realize the risk she was taking.  Her fresh faced appeal may have helped Reard’s cause
He was not the first designer with the idea.  A few days before Jacques Heim had unveiled a very similar suit that he called the atome. Maybe Reard had a better press agent, or maybe the Bikini was just a better name, but the press went wild for his creation.
Ava Gardner in 1949 in one of two-piece suits that were careful to cover the navel and not expose clevage that were worn in the late  '30's through the war years.

When pictures reached the U.S. our still puritanical society was predictably appalled and outraged.  A surprising amount of serious ink was spent in editorial columns of major newspapers and “smart” magazines decrying the bathing suit and tsk-tsking about plummeting morals.  
Two piece suits themselves were nothing new. They had been worn stateside with little public comment since the mid ‘30’s.  The bottoms of these suits, however, were essentially tight fitting shorts, legs cut straight across and modestly covering the navel.  The tops were armored breast-plate like bras covered with fabric and often trimmed in pleated flounces to make sure that no swelling flesh was inadvertently exposed. 
           Aussie swimming champion Annette Kellerman in the suit that got her busted on a Boston Beach in 1907.
After all this is was a nation that was so shocked by a simple one piece tank suit in that authorities arrested Australian swimming A champion Annette Kellerman in 1907 for wearing one on a Boston beach.  Although her case helped overturn some of the more draconian swimming dress codes, heavy wool suits with skirts, and stockings as immortalized by the Keystone Bathing Beauties of the silent pictures did not disappear until the late ‘20’s.
Esther Williams’s Aquacade film extravaganzas  of the ‘40’s set off an American interest in swimwear that was figure flattering—if a girl had William’s substantial curves—while appropriately chaste. 
Movie star Esther Williams made one piece sheath bathing suits that flattered her statuesque figure the American fashion standard for the post-war years.  She even had her own line of swim suits.

Even in France the daring bikini took a while to take off with the public.  But after a young starlet named Brigitte Bardot wore one on the beach during the 1953 Cannes Film Festival that they became common on the beaches of the Riviera.  It took until about 1960 for bikinis to become more than exotic curiosities in the United States.  Although restrictions against them remained in force at most public beaches and pools, the rapid spread of private pools gave women places where they could actually wear the little suites without being arrested.  

                 Brigitte Bardot on the beach at Cannes in 1953 boosted the popularity of the bikini in Europe. 

Pools were becoming an expected attraction at the roadside motels catering to a nation on wheels and the back yard pool had gone from being a symbol of ostentatious wealth to a common amenity of many middle class homes.  Society as a whole was becoming more relaxed—blame the pernicious influence of Hollywood and Rock and Roll. 
In 1960 Brian Hyland chronicled the fate of a modest young woman and her new swim suit in his hit Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.  The popular teen beach and surfing movies of the decade helped spread the craze, though beach queen Annette Funicello herself never wore one.  
Brian Hyland's 1960 novelty song hit resurrected interest in the bikini in the U.S.

In 1964 Sport Illustrated inaugurated their annual Swimsuit Issue with a model in a bikini on the cover.  By ’67 even that staunch defender of middle class propriety, Time reported, “65% of the young set had already gone over,” to the bikini. 
After Donald Trump bought the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants in 1996 he decreed bikinis for the bathing suit competition to, in his own words “sex things up.”  Naturally.  Later the more staid and convention Miss America organization switched to two piece suits, albeit much more modest than string bikinis, before eliminating their bathing suit competition entirely in 2018. 
Miss Universe contestants in Sydney, Australia in 2009.  Contestants recalled that pageant owner Donald Trump would enter their dressing room while they were changing "on inspection."  Of course he did.
America still is behind Europe.  The topless suits seen now on the Riviera or even the Brazilian thong bikini, standard around the world, are still relatively rare on these shores.

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