An itsy-bitsy history of the teeny weeny bikini 1946-2003: from the voluptuous screen stars of yesteryear to today's toned and buff surfer girls, a retrospective of our bodies and the bikini - Essential Guide to SummerIt's hard to imagine you can attribute so much meaning to so little fabric, but it's true -- the bikini has spent the last 57 years showing off the female body in all its glory, from the hourglass figures of the '50s to the athletic abs of the '90s and beyond. "Since the beginning, the bikini has represented freedom, fun and a sense of liberation," says New York City-based swimsuit designer Malia Mills.
That sense of fun was just what French engineer Louis Reard decided his countrymen needed after the grim years of World War II. In 1946 he had the simple but scandalous idea of splitting the swimsuit in two. Needing a name as explosive as his creation, Reard borrowed "bikini" from the Pacific atoll where the United States was testing early atomic bombs. The bikini wasn't immediately embraced -- in fact, Reard had to hire a nude dancer to debut it, since no reputable French fashion model would.
Scandalous though it was, the sexy suit slowly infiltrated American beaches and pool parties, and by the late '50s and '60s the soft, curvy figures of Marilyn Monroe, Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot were the idealized bikini bodies. In 1964 the bikini made its first appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated; that same year, mod designer Rudi Gernreich took the two-piece concept one step further with his topless "monokini." A minor hit in Europe, the R-rated suit never made a big splash on American shores.
By the '70s, American women were catching up with the Europeans' more daring attitudes. At the same time, swimsuit designers were discovering Lycra, a stretch fiber that allowed them to stitch tinier pieces of fabric, yet still provide support. The result: The string bikini -- with more string than fabric -- was born. The daring young women of Rio de Janeiro and St-Tropez went even further -- forgoing all rear-view coverage to show off their assets in the "Tanga" (what we Americans know as the thong).
From Curves to Crunches
The fitness boom of the '80s led to one of the biggest leaps in the evolution of the bikini, Mills observes: "The leg line became superhigh, the front was superlow, and the straps were superthin. That was the era of aerobics and Jane Fonda, and women really wanted to show off their bodies."
But as skin-cancer awareness grew and a sleeker, simpler aesthetic defined fashion in the '90s, the skimpy bikini practically dropped off the radar. By that time, the voluptuous figure that looked so good in tiny triangles was out; athletic, toned bodies became the ideal, as epitomized by surf star Malia Jones, who appeared on Shape's June 1997 cover wearing a halter-top two-piece built for rough water.
Today, bikinis are back with vengeance: Just witness Halle Berry's bikini moment in the 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day, an homage to her Bond Girl predecessor, Ursula Andress, in 1962's Dr. No. This time around, though, there's no one ideal "bikini figure." Mills says that women of all shapes are discovering that two pieces just fit better, no matter their body shape. "We find that very few women come into our stores and say, '1 can't wear a two-piece,'" says Mills, who sells tops and bottoms separately to provide the perfect fit. "Women today are very liberated in how they feel about their bodies and comfortable with who they are, and they want to show it!"