Ever wondered about the historical backstory of that skimpy little wardrobe staple hidden away in your bathing suit drawer? Well, it’s your lucky day, babes! Join us for a deep dive into the evolution of this absolutely iconic piece of swimwear that has continued to make waves for decades.
From California shores to London swimming holes to the famed beaches of Portugal, bikinis have been all the rage for decades. You’ve heard the Brian Hyland song about the itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini; now, learn where it came from.
When Was the Bikini Invented, and by Whom?
The history of this famed swimwear actually began with the age-old non-clothing item: The Birthday Suit. Truth! In actuality, up until the 19th Roman century, people mostly swam in the nude.
Once people in the Western world started regularly wearing bathing suits, let’s just say they weren’t exactly the sexiest garb you’ve ever seen. You might be surprised to learn that old-timey swimwear looked pretty similar to what was being worn for regular clothing.
Women would wear something that looked like a belted dress over some long bloomers. Highly utilitarian and profoundly unaesthetic, this swim fashion was anything but fashionable.
In fact, before the invention of modern swimwear, the clothing people wore to swim served one purpose and one purpose only: To cover up the bodies of swimmers. Modesty and coverage were the name of the game!
Enter French fashion designer Louis Reard. Spain, eat your heart out! Reard was the first to design a bathing suit that was anywhere close to the modern bikini we know today. Created in 1946, the very first bikini took the world by storm, and its namesake has some strange origins.
Reward decided to name his swimwear invention after the Bikini Atoll, which technically is the name of a coral reef. Well, that sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Spoiler alert: the real reason he named the swimsuit after Bikini Atoll is because of the infamous nuclear testing that had been done at this site. Talk about an atomic bomb! Consider your mind (and the coral reef) blown.
Fun fact: Australian designer Paula Straford introduced the bikini to the Gold Coast in 1952, where it was banned until 1959. The ladies were hawking the bikini to their side of the Pacific, too!
Why Was the Bikini Invented?
After decades of oppressive — and probably really uncomfortable and impractical — bathing suits, it was about time for a change. Around this time, the world was starting to change as well.
When the bikini first came out, it was so scandalous that Reard had to call upon a nude dancer from Italy, Micheline Bernardini, to model the two-piece wonder. By the standards of the time, the minuscule string bikini was akin to being naked in public.
Though European women had already been wearing two-piece suits at the time, they were vastly different and more modest than the bikini Reard had created. These previous suits had only a tiny, practically microscopic, sliver of midriff skin showing.
As shocking as the bikini was, it was not the only tiny swimwear prototype out there. Another fashion designer, Jacques Heim, was working on a minuscule two-piece bathing suit that he called “the atom.”
When Reard came out with his competing model, he called it “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit.” Apparently, it stuck!
While most people have never heard of the atom bathing suit, the bikini is ubiquitous. And are any of us really surprised that two men from France designed the world’s most revealing, lingerie-style bathing suit? Not in the least.
The Evolution of the Bikini Throughout the Years
It goes without saying that poolside swimwear has evolved over the years. Just how much?
Let us take you on a hot little journey through the history of the bikini. Though it’s gone through myriad changes, you’ll quickly discover that the more things change, the more they stay the same. When in Rome!
The 1950s: Classic Glam and the Birth of the Bombshell
Unsurprisingly, not everyone was on board with this new radical swimwear. In the 1950s, women in the United States, prudish in comparison to their European counterparts, hadn’t yet fallen in love with the bikini. Over in Europe? Oh, the ladies there were scantily clad and ready to hit the beach!
American women were still trending towards one-piece bathing suits for the most part, but two-piece suits were starting to creep in. At the time, the fads were more about high-waisted suits with more modest tops, when women were donning two pieces at all. The late 50s were all about classic glamor and the bombshell image.
Hollywood icons like Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, and Brigitte Bardot flaunted their curves in the earliest American bikinis. The Miss World competition started in 1951 and featured women from all over the world in their bikinis. It was a fashion show for the ages!
We tend to have a common misremembering of history, often thanks to internet images and overt myths. While the picture of the 1950s is one of Pleasantville-esque neighborhoods with picket fences and perfect nuclear families, the truth is that the United States was beginning a cultural shift that affected social norms and took swim fashion right along with it.
The 1960s: Peace, Love, and Teeny-Tiny Swimwear
As flower power, tie-dye, and The Grateful Dead took center stage in the 1960s, so did the super cute boho bikini. Much of what was trendy in swimwear in the 1960s would fit right in with modern swimwear, with some exceptions.
During this time, the vibes were all sunshine and rainbows, at least if you didn’t scratch too deep below the surface, and bathing suit trends reflected this mentality. If one word described the swimwear of the time, it would be “Free-Spirited.”
Tie-dye, psychedelic patterns, fringe, and crocheted swimwear abounded. Being naked became, for a huge section of the population, an expression of self.
This became a real moment for swimwear and made a massive shift in what was considered acceptable and what was not. Culturally, there were some who were still stuck in the 40s and 50s, but the world was starting to move on to more scandalous swimwear.
Of course, it wasn’t framed that way. For women, especially feminist women, showing more skin was empowering and represented much more than met the eye. In the sixties, Ursula Andress made waves with her white two-piece in the James Bond movie Dr. No. Yes, her. The girl in the bikini!
Another huge swimwear milestone from the 1960s? In 1964, Sports Illustrated came out with their first-ever swimsuit issue. This cultural phenomenon turned the bikini into a symbol of beauty and athleticism.
The 1970s: A Perfect 10!
Since bikinis really only started to take hold of the American consciousness in the mid-1960s, a lot of the styles that were popular then remained popular in the 1970s. And remember, without the internet to command almost instantaneous shifts in fashion, trends used to stick around longer!
Crocheted triangle bikini tops remained super popular, as did fringe on bathing suits. Trends did start to change when it came to fabrics and color.
While making a bold hippie statement was totally groovy in the 1960s, the 1970s had a bit of a minimalist moment. No longer was tie-dye the reigning queen. The swimsuit shops began to carry suits in neutral shades like tans, browns, golds, olive greens, muted oranges, etc.
Contrasting stripes became popular as well. Flower patterns weren’t going anywhere, so flower power was still large and in charge!
The iconic bathing suit image of the 70s hit the scene in 1979, bringing a close to the decade: Bo Derek in the movie Perfect 10, jogging down the beach in a barely there beige bathing suit. Many people misremember her as wearing a bikini, but it was actually a super sexy one-piece. Either way, this turned Derek into a bathing suit icon.
Fun fact about 1970s bikinis: The first thong bikini bottom was invented in 1974. Now, that’s one bathing suit that takes some serious confidence to pull off!
The 1980s: The Neon Fitness Era
The 80s were a glorious time to hit the beach. The fitness craze had begun, music videos on MTV were dictating the fashions of the time, and neon brights were everywhere.
The leg cuts on bathing suits soared higher than ever, creating that coveted long-leg illusion and making an ultra-bold statement. Eighties beach culture was a scene all its own. Neon hues ruled the beach, with vibrant pinks, electric blues, and fluorescent greens stealing the show!
Movies like Hard Bodies and Weekend at Bernie’s glorified the bikini, and women all over aspired to look like the actresses who strutted their stuff down the beach. Um, objectification of women, much? Absolutely, but from a historical standpoint, it’s almost forgivable because, well, it was the eighties.
Bikinis of the time were minimal, to say the least. String bikini tops and ultra-high-cut bottoms dominated the beach. The bandeau top was also having a moment, possibly due to a desire bordering on obsession to avoid tan lines.
The 1990s: Enter Baywatch Babes!
The 90s conjures up an image of grunge-filled fashion and a certain disassociated irreverence towards capitalism and materialism. However, that is just one small picture of the decade. While this certainly was the era of grunge, fun beach fashion was still all the rage.
Nothing quite captured the essence of 90s beach vibes quite like the award-winning television show Baywatch. While none of the lifeguards on the show were donning bikinis, the entire show (for the most part) took place on beautiful west coast beaches. Bikinis were everywhere!
This made it much more normalized to turn on your TV and see scantily clad women wearing bikinis. The popularity of Baywatch also ushered in an era of minimalism in bikinis: sporty athletic tops with low-rise bottoms began making waves. Brands like Calvin Klein — minimalistic to a fault — were gaining popularity as well, and solid-color, simple swimsuits were all the rage.
The Early 2000s: Everything Bling and Boots With the Fur
The style simplicity of the nineties would not last. The early 2000s ushered in an exciting new time of blinged-out bikini bliss! Again, as cultural and sociological changes took place, so did fashion changes, including changes in swim fashion.
Rhinestone-encrusted bikinis were in, minimalistic black bikinis were out! Seemingly odd materials like leather and fur even found their way onto bikinis. Some of this may be due to the sudden popularity of bikini tops on the red carpet, worn by celebs like Gwen Stefani, Paris Hilton, and Halle Berry.
Flashy logos also came into style. Brands like Juicy Couture made it acceptable, nay, aspirational, to put large lettering all over one’s derriere. Let’s just say that bikinis in the early 2000s were not known for their subtlety.
Present Day: Sustainability, Inclusivity, and All the Positivity!
Moving right into the modern era, we are in a beautiful time for swimwear. Unlike the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, this moment in time is characterized by a desire to be better, not in terms of how we look but in how we act and what we support.
In that regard, we are interested in sustainable products, and our bikinis are no exception! Now, you will find so many bikinis online made of sustainable materials that help to conserve our environment. We can get on board with this trend! (And we actively do. Read more about our commitment to creating sustainable swimwear).
In the present day, we are also a generation of inclusive girlies. Who can wear a bikini? Literally anyone. Who has a beach body? Anyone with a body who might happen to be at the beach.
In terms of current bikini trends, we are throwing it back to the 90s in terms of minimalism: solid colors are making a comeback, and even some 90s styles are coming back. We also love metallic bikinis and lounging by the swimming pool in fun textured fabrics.
Though the bikini has some scandalous roots, and it took many people quite some time to get on board with showing some extra skin, we are super happy that it eventually caught on. From the old Hollywood glam of the 1950s to the hippie-dippy flower power of the 60s and 70s to the bling of the 2000s, the bikini has undergone so many changes over the years and has dominated the better part of the 20th century.
One thing remains the same: This two-piece swimsuit is an absolute icon and will be for decades to come.