Swimsuit season! Time to dig through your underwear drawer to see if you can still wear that remaining vestige of youth: your bikini.
The bikini is credited to two Frenchmen: Jacques Heim, a fashion designer, and Louis Réard, a car manufacturer who had taken over his mother’s lingerie shop. In 1946, Heim created a two-piece suit he called the atome in credit to its smallness: it was “the smallest bathing suit in the world.” Réard followed suit (literally) and came up with a skimpier two-piece suit: we’d recognize it today as a string bikini. It was so scandalous that models wouldn’t countenance wearing it for its debut, and Réard had to hire a French burlesque dancer to model his creation for the world. It was introduced on July 5, just four days after the U.S. had begun testing atomic bombs on the Bikini Atoll, and named in honor of the earth-rattling explosions. Le bikini was born.
Ancient Greece - 1940s
The bikini was not the first two-piece bathing suit around—the two-piece goes back to ancient Greece. But in America, coverage was the name of the game from the Puritans onward. In the early 1900s, bathing suits, made for a dainty and fully covered wade into the water, were replaced by swimsuits, cut shorter and more form-fitting so as not to drag you to the bottom of the ocean if you did anything but wade. By the mid-1930s, women were able to purchase two-piece suits with full-coverage bottoms and high-cupped halters that revealed just the slightest skim of ribcage between elements. Some of the designs on offer look shockingly modern: open and laced backs, novelty cutouts at the side for interesting tan lines, tops with underwires and other architectural bits. But though the distance between the pieces increased into the 1940s, there was a line of demarcation, a Sexiness DMZ, between acceptable and trashy: the navel.
Blame Hollywood—or, more accurately, blame the Production Code of the Motion Picture Industry (otherwise known as “The Hays Code”) for American navel-shaming. Starting in 1930s, the Hays Code, as it was called, attempted to rein in any hint of filmatic sex, drugs, and immoral conduct by prohibiting a long list of behaviors, words, and themes in American cinema. The bellybutton was a no-go, perhaps because it reminded people of other, more southerly divots, or perhaps simply because it drew the eye Down There. Regardless, the navel was off-limits even for Gidget, who had to keep hers covered by a more modest two-piece to save viewers from unbridled bellybutton-induced lust.
(Jessie Hays, the wife of the Hays Code author, divorced her husband William at some point after he had lent his name to the Production Code. In the proceedings, she purportedly “cited his inability to distinguish her navel from her clitoris” as one reason for the divorce—a story that is likely apocryphal, but I recount it here because it is nonetheless satisfying.)
1960s - 1970s
The Hays Code was in effect until the mid-1960s, but the navel-baring bikini became a quick visual cue in America for sex. The 1962 Bond film Dr. No featured actress Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in a white bikini that remained miraculously opaque when wet, a knife on her hip and a conch in her hand. Her character’s name is Honey Ryder, because of course it is. The same year, Playboy ran “A Toast to Bikinis” and featured the bottom half of a bikini-wearer on its cover; two years later, Sports Illustrated put a bikini on the cover of what is considered to be its inaugural Swimsuit Issue. And what goes hand-in-hand with sex appeal? Boundary-pushing teens (Gidget notwithstanding). A 1965 article in Time Magazine about the sudden ubiquity of bikinis quotes one Long Islander as saying, “American fashion is now dominated by teenagers. They have the figures and the courage to wear these suits, and adults–happily or not–are following their lead.”
By the time the bikini became a mainstay on our shores, the French had already outstripped us (literally) by introducing the monokini in 1964. The monokini was simply a bikini bottom with a couple of straps to keep it on the body—no top. This caused a stir even in anything-goes Europe: in a 1964 article, Gina Lollobrigida, the Italian starlet, declared they “lack taste and intelligence,” and Claudia Cardinale, another Italian actress, proclaimed they were “aesthetically horrible” and “decidedly unfeminine.” The unnamed reporter then goes on to reassure us that “most men are in favor of ‘monokinis’,” just in case you were wondering.
With the birth of the monokini and the rise of the bikini, –kini became the recipe for sexy swimsuit success, and in a few short years, we were treated to the trikini, which sounds moderately horrifying (“Some ingenious fellow has just come up with a Tri-Kini, best described as a handkerchief and two small saucers. The saucers, say the manufacturers, stick on with Velcro, the stuff which fastens at a touch.” –Scottish Daily Mail, June 7, 1967). String bikinis became a thing in the late 1960s, and by the 1970s, Rio had given us the tanga, or thong bikini.
1980s - 2000s
The more we showed, of course, the more people told us not to, or how to. In the 1960s, Emily Post weighed in (“It is for perfect figures only, and for the very young”), and suit designer Malia Mills ties the bikini to the aerobics craze of the 1980s. The bikini wax dates back to the mid-1970s; the term bikini line to the late 1970s. Forget navels: we were now focused on the mons.
The original bikini wearers, those boundary-pushing teens of the ‘60s and ‘70s prancing around in crocheted crotch-covers, were now the old folks from Long Island being interviewed by Time Magazine, but just because we were soft around the middle didn’t mean we were going to give up our bikinis. Fashion answered: in the mid-1980s, the tankini was introduced. It was a two-piece consisting of a sporty tank top and a bikini bottom, though one fashion article from 1987 warns that the “extra material on top doesn’t make up for the bare-it-all bikini bottom.”
Where can you go from the bottom, so to speak? To extremes, of course. On one side of the spectrum is the,” the over-the-shoulder banana sling for men popularized by Sasha Baron Cohen’s Kazakhstani caricature, Borat (and also apparently unwelcome in Kazakhstan). On the other is the burkini, a pants-and-tunic suit with attached headcovering for Muslim women, created by a Muslim woman to “give women freedom, not take it away.” Both have, like the original bikini, proven to be controversial.
I owned a bikini for about 20 minutes in my early 30s. It was from Land’s End: simple 1970’s-era triangle top, short board-short bottoms, in orange, navy, and white. I saw it and felt like Ursula Andress stepping out of the ocean—no knife belt or ridiculous Bondian name, but every bit as confident and dangerous.
A half-an-hour later, as I was walking back to the car, shame got the better of me. I had two kids, which meant that I had a body like overproofed bread dough, and no time or energy to get it into shape. My torso had so many stretchmarks that I looked like an OpArt illusion. Forget about getting rid of excess body hair—my lower abdomen had so many folds now that I couldn’t even see all my body hair. I pictured going to the community pool, all pasty and pockmarked flabola, That One Sad Lady Who Thinks She’s 18, My God. I took the bikini back and got a one-piece with some gut-busting ruching and underwire support.
I regret giving up that bikini today, not because I look any better, but because I am now old enough to not care whether I look any better. In her book The Meaning of Sunglasses, Hadley Freeman extols the beach as “a fantastic leveler…. Almost no one has a perfect body, and no one really cares,” and the reality of this doesn’t hit you until you are well past “prime bikini body.” I go to the beach rarely, but when I do, I give an encouraging nod to the women in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond who wear a bikini because they want to, dammit. I see it as a mark of rebellion: when you’ve survived that many decades of womanhood, you deserve the pleasure of sun on whatever bit of skin you want.
Women have been called bombshells since the early 1940s: busty blondes straddling ordnance, painted on the side of planes. But I like the image that the word itself conjures: a plain dull skin, and on the inside, explosions. Drop us on a beach and watch the fireworks from a safe distance. Just spare us the mankinis, please.
Kory Stamper is the author of the best-selling nonfiction book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, which chronicles her two-decade career as a dictionary writer for Merriam-Webster. Her writing on words and language has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and on New York Magazine’s The Cut. She is currently a full-time writer, has two adult daughters, and will not cut coffee or alcohol out of her diet though her gyno says it would help with the night sweats.