When was the bikini invented, why was it popularized, who created it, and how was it received by the general public?
We will address all of these questions and more in the following article.
When Was the Bikini First Worn?
When you think of bikinis for surfing or sitting on the beach, you probably think of the 1960s and of sex symbols like Raquel Welch, but while this liberating decade certainly played a major role in the history of the bikini, it dates back much further than that.
A Sicilian villa depicts what is probably the oldest image of a woman wearing a two-piece bikini-like item of clothing. It is thought to have been made during the Diocletian Period in around 300 AD. For context, that’s about a century before the birth of Attila the Hun, and bikinis may have been around for a long time at that point.
In fact, there is reason to believe that the Romans were wearing thongs for at least a few hundred years by that point, and female Greek athletes may have also worn something similar. We even have some evidence of Neolithic bikini use. If true, it means they have been around for at least 7,000 years.
That might sound like a very long time, but it’s important to remember that humans have been wearing clothes for between 40,000 and 3 million years (depending on which expert you believe).
That’s a lot of time for adaptations and improvements to be made, and when you consider that many early human civilizations were located around modern-day Iraq, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt, and that athletic games and fitness would have been integral to early societies, it’s fair to assume that the idea of a cooling, freeing item of clothing played a key role.
The Evolution of the Bikini
Although bikinis clearly played a big role in Roman and Greek societies, and also likely appeared throughout Mesopotamia and North Africa prior to the rise of western civilization, the idea was all but forgotten for many hundreds of years.
When the Romans left Europe, the continent descended into a dark age, one where disease was rampant, war was constant, and strict religious and cultural ideas meant that people didn’t bathe very often and weren’t willing to expose their flesh.
By the 18th century, when the railways made it possible for more people to travel to the coast, bathing suits had evolved into full-body gowns. They were loose-fitting, ankle-length items of clothing with full-length sleeves. Often made from flannel or wool, these suits were far removed from the classical or modern bikini and there was no risk of the wearer’s skin or shape being exposed.
As the decades passed, the sleeves grew shorter and, in the early 20th century, one-piece suits with exposed legs and arms became common.
These bathing suits were still considered “indecent” in some parts of the world. In 1907, an Australian swimmer named Annette Kellerman was arrested in Boston for wearing a suit that covered her from head to toe, seemingly because it was form-fitting.
The Olympics and Hollywood helped to make form-fitting suits more acceptable, and Carl Jantzen played a big role in bringing the two-piece bathing suit to the masses.
When Was the Modern Bikini Invented?
Jantzen is often credited with designing the first functional two-piece bathing suit in the 1910s. He also coined the name “swim suit”, a product that he manufactured and sold through his company, the Jantzen Knitting Mills. However, he’s not the name you’ll see when you look for the inventor of the bikini.
That honor goes to either Jacques Heim or Louis Reard, two French inventors who worked on bikinis independently.
Heim ran a beach shop in the town of Cannes and created a two-piece suit that he called the “atome” due to its small size.
Reard was running his mother’s lingerie business in Paris and while strolling on the beaches of St. Tropez he noticed that beach goers were adapting their clothing to expose more skin and get a tan. He created a string bikini to expose more of the body and then hired a young nude dancer to model it (it’s often said that everyone else refused).
Reard’s creation was more like the modern bikini than anything that went before. Unlike Heim’s creation, it didn’t hide the navel, and this was considered highly controversial at the time (even though Roman and Greek creations also exposed the navel).
Why is it Called a “Bikini”?
The name “bikini” comes from the “Bikini Atoll”, a coral reef in the Marshall Islands.
The Bikini Atoll became the site of the first nuclear test in 1946, just 5 days before the launch of Reard’s swimsuit.
Was the Bikini Popular?
The bikini was launched at a time when two-piece bathing suits were only just becoming accepted, and people weren’t comfortable exposing their midriffs.
During the early years, bikini sales struggled and it was essentially limited to rich women in Europe’s social elite. Reard returned to designing and selling lingerie and watched as his innovative creation was banned in several major European countries.
French girls began to see the bikini as a rebellious item of clothing, and in the 1950s, it attracted a lot of attention when it was worn by a Miss World contestant and then by Brigitte Bardot. By the middle of the 1950s, it was a common sight among the Hollywood elite and while there were still bans in place during the 1960s, it experienced a huge resurgence thanks to the rise of surf culture and the famous Bond-girl bikini worn by Ursula Andress in 1962’s Dr. No.
FAQs About the History of the Bikini
Who Invented the Bikini?
Louis Reard is often credited with inventing the modern bikini. However, as noted above, variations of bikinis have existed for thousands of years.
Who Wore the First Bikini in Hollywood?
In the 1960s, Ursula Andress and Raquel Welch wore bikinis in two different James Bond films, raising the popularity and status of the apparel on both occasions. However, they weren’t the first to wear the bikini on screen.
“Revealing” bathing suits were worn during silent films in the 1910s, including The Water Nymph, although these were a far cry from modern bikinis.
The 1929 flick Man with a Movie Camera depicted Russian women with two-piece suits that exposed their midriffs while more revealing pieces were seen in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio.
As far as Reard’s bikini is concerned, one of the first major depictions on the big screen came in 1952 when Brigitte Bardot wore one in Manina, the Girl in the Bikini.
Who Wore the First Bikini in Bollywood?
Sharmila Tagore wore a bikini in 1967’s An Evening in Paris, becoming the first Bollywood actress to wear one of these bathing suits on screen.
What Did People Wear Before the Bikini?
Before the invention of the bikini, people wore two-piece bathing suits and then one-piece full bathing suits. In early history, humans just bathed nude.
With the exception of a few periods of relatively modern history, our ancestors weren’t very prude and also understood that naked bathing was the best way to get clean and naked sunbathing was the best way to get tanned. They also lacked the synthetic fabrics suitable for streamlined swimming and the light, breathable fabrics ideal for sunbathing.
Summary: History of the Bikini
The history of the bikini is clearly a fascinating one, and as you can see from the guide above, it spans many decades and even many millennia, depending on your definition of a bikini.
What’s most interesting is that human sensibilities seem to have cycled, going through a period when these suits were widely accepted and embraced, to a time when they were considered too revealing and then back to a period of liberation.