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These days, a walk down a sandy beach reveals women of all ages and sizes in all sorts of swimwear – from modest one piece swimsuits to teeny tiny bikinis. And while you’re probably not surprised to see the revealing designs, those scandalous swimsuits would have caused an outrage in the early 1900s. In fact, the two piece swimsuit didn’t even take hold of the fashion world until the 1940s.
In the 1930s, a few confident women in Europe began wearing modest two-piece bathing suits. Typically, these suits consisted of a halter top with high-waisted shorts. Only a small portion of the stomach was revealed and the navel always remained hidden. Soon after, those modest two piece swimsuits made their way to the U.S. as manufacturers attempted to save fabric during World War II. Once the war was over, two French designers went head-to-head in an attempt to develop the world’s first revealing two piece swimsuit. Although designer Jacques Helm’s “Atom” swimsuit was smaller than traditional swimsuits, it didn’t stand a chance next to designer Louis Reard’s design.
During Reard’s development of the scant swimsuit, the U.S. perfromed nuclear testing off the shores of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Inspired by the powerful nuclear bangs -- and confident that his creation would also create a “bang” in the fashion world -- Reard named his two piece swimsuit the “bikini.” Made from just 30 inches of fabric, the bikini consisted of a bra top and two triangles of cloth connected by a string. The design was so scandalous that Reard was unable to find a professional model willing to wear the bikini. So, he had to look elsewhere to find a bikini model. On July 5, 1946, Parisian showgirl and exotic dancer Micheline Bernardini modeled the tiny two piece bikini at the popular Piscine Molitor swimming pool in Paris. Shortly after the bikini’s debut, Reard received about 50,000 fan letters -- from men and women alike.
Decades of Change
The bikini quickly made an impact along the Mediterranean coast, where young women confidently wore the new designs. At first, bikinis were prohibited from public beaches in Spain and Italy. However, the prohibition was reversed within a few years and the bikini was seen regularly on European beaches by the mid-1950s. The more modest Americans resisted the revealing design for more than a decade. But in the early 1960s, the song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikni” by pop singer Brian Hyland and the beach-based movies by Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon brought new light to the scanty design -- and the bikini’s popularity soared. In 1964, popular magazine “Sports Illustrated” published its first swimsuit issue -- with a bikini on the cover.
In the mid-1960s, fashion designer took the bikini design one step farther -- and created the monokini. The topless design revealed a woman’s breasts and featured bikini shorts held up by suspenders. However, the monokini’s popularity never really took hold. Further design developments have changed the overall look of the bikini. Some women prefer a thong bikini bottom, which reveals the buttocks. Thong bottoms typically have a small strip of material that extends from the waistband and is worn between the buttocks. An even more revealing design, the G-string bikini bottom features only a small string between the buttocks. For more modest fashionistas, the bikini has also seen a development in the other direction. The tankini features traditional bikini bottoms with a tanktop-like bathing top that covers more of the back and stomach.