Find out how these pieces became popular!
The bikini and the one-piece swimsuit are the most popular styles of swimwear. But do you know their origin and how they achieved so much recognition? Let’s find out!
Throughout the evolution of swimwear as clothing to wear in the water there has always been the concept of a two-piece swimsuit. In part due to material rationing during the Great Depression and World War II, swimsuits continued to diminish in size, leaving more and more skin exposed. By the 1930s, reduced-size two-piece swimsuit designs that left a small part of the torso exposed but completely covered the navel began to appear.
In the late 1930s, designer Jacques Heim designed a two-piece swimsuit that left the torso a bit more exposed than the existing ones, but still completely covered the navel. This design was not very successful by then and was reintroduced in May 1946 as “the atom”, for being smaller than the existing swimsuits. Heim described it as the smallest swimsuit in the world.
Then, on July 5, 1946, designer Louis Réard introduced his version of an even tinier swimsuit, which he called “bikini”. It consisted of a two-piece set with each piece constructed with 2 triangles of fabric and some ties. It left most of the body exposed, including the navel. The name referred to the island “Bikini Atoll” in the Pacific Ocean that was used for nuclear military practices with atomic bombs after World War II. The name implied that this swimsuit design was explosive and was going to create a lasting impression, like the atomic bomb, shattering all preconceptions and marking a turning point in swimwear history. Its creator described it as “smaller than the world’s smallest swimsuit”, referring to “the atom”. The bikini design was so scandalous that no swimwear model wanted to model it and the designer had to use an exotic dancer to present it.
Fig 1: Designer Louis Réard
Although the bikini caused a lot of commotion, its success was not immediate, as many considered it scandalous and was banned in many places. In the 1950s bikinis were used mostly by actresses like Brigitte Bardot, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Ursula Andress, Raquel Welch, and Rita Hayworth. Interestingly, in the first edition of the Miss World pageant in 1951, the winner was crowned in a bikini.
During the 1960s, the bikini became increasingly common, aided by its adoption in movies, on magazine covers, the women’s liberation movement, and the availability of textiles containing elastane.
The impact of the bikini on swimwear evolution is such that it is used as the basis for naming other styles of swimwear. Since the bikini is a two-piece swimsuit, the word bikini started to be used as if it was a compound word made up by the prefix “bi”, meaning two (2), and the suffix “kini” with a given meaning of “swimsuit”. So, just by changing the prefix, based on the design, a new style of swimsuit was born. This is how the monokini, the trikini, the tankini, and the skirtini, among others arose.
The modern one-piece swimsuit
Also in 1946, designer Rose Marie Reid, known for designing swimsuits for actresses like Marilyn Monroe, and owner of several bathing suit patents, filed the patent for the first one-piece pull-on elastic swimsuit, without zippers or buttons, precursor to the one-piece swimsuit as we know it today.
Rose Marie believed that a woman should feel as well dressed in a bathing suit as in an evening gown, which was reflected in her elaborate and ornate bathing suit designs.
The development of new textiles capable of responding to the need for adjustment, comfort and functionality, dry or wet, was decisive in the evolution of the modern swimsuit. Since the late 20th century to the present day, there is also a greater acceptance of the right of women to choose how to dress and of the diversity of body sizes and shapes. Nowadays, there are as many styles of swimsuits as there are bodies to wear them.
Fig. 2: Images submitted by Rose Marie Reid in the patent for the first one-piece elastic swimsuit without a zipper or buttons.
Fig 3: Swimsuits from the 1950's. Photos by Bernice Kopple
Fig 4: Modern swimsuits
I hope these interesting facts have left you curious to learn more about the swimsuit. If you are interested in learning more, I invite you to visit the links to the references used to prepare this article.