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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 July 2006, 07:17 GMT 08:17 UK
The bikini: Not a brief affair
By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

It may be itsy bitsy, but there is no doubt the bikini has had a huge impact on popular culture, changing the world of fashion like few other garments.

Ursula Andress said the secret of her success was the Dr No bikini. Photo: Corbis - The Bikini Book (Assouline)
The bikini as we know it turns 60 on 5 July. It has weathered scandal, shrugged off the fads and whims of fashion, been celebrated as helping with the emancipation of women and lambasted as turning women into objects of desire.

Its wearers have passed into legend, becoming iconic images of 20th Century culture.

Who can forget that 1962 Dr No moment when Ursula Andress, as Bond Girl Honeychile Rider, emerges from the sea in a white bikini, knife tucked into a wide belt. So iconic was the look that it was repeated 40 years later by Halle Berry in the Bond movie Die Another Day.

In 2001, the Dr No bikini sold at auction for $61,500.

Then there was Brigitte Bardot who set pulses racing when she appeared in her bikini in the 1957 film And God Created Woman. Raquel Welch's animal skin two- piece in One Million Years BC made her an instant pin-up girl.

Female expression

Historically, the bikini is more than 1,700 years old, according to mosaics dating from 300AD at the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, which depict girls exercising in bikinis.

But it took off as a fashion item in the late 1950s.

Ursula Andress's Dr No look was so iconic it was repeated by Halle Berry. Photo: Corbis - The Bikini Book (Assouline)
The bikini became a symbol of female expression, says American writer and former model Kelly Killoren Bensimon, who has written The Bikini Book to celebrate its birthday.

"It really gave people confidence," she told the BBC News website. "The bikini is emblematic of freedom. It's about fun, it's about play, it's a lifestyle.

"It celebrates athletes, models, dancers and real people."

Ms Bensimon puts the bikini's longevity down to its scandalous inception.

"The bikini is associated with scandal and that's why it survived," she said.

Certainly the two-piece had a hard time convincing the public that it was OK for "decent" women to wear it.

Invented by engineer

"Le bikini", a suit of four triangles made from only 30 inches of fabric, made its debut in Paris in 1946. Unable to find a model who would wear it, the bikini's creator Louis Reard enlisted a nude dancer to pose for photographs.

Brigette Bardot sparked a French craze for "le bikini"
Mr Reard was a French engineer by profession but in the mid-1940s, he was running his mother's lingerie business.

He had noticed women on the beaches of St Tropez rolling up their bathing suits to try to get a better tan. He and French designer Jacques Heim were in competition to produce the world's smallest swimsuit. While Mr Heim's two-piece was the first to be worn on the beach, it was Mr Reard that gave the bikini its memorable name.

It was debuted shortly after the first US post-war nuclear tests on the South Pacific Bikini atoll. Words like atomic were beginning to be used by the media to describe something sensational and, no doubt, Mr Reard reasoned that the excitement the bikini would cause would equal that of the bomb.


The bikini certainly caused a sensation - but few women were prepared to wear it. One of the main problems was that the bikini exposed the navel and that was frowned on.

Until, that is, Brigitte Bardot sparked the French craze and St Tropez was set alight by women in two-pieces.

St Tropez is the spiritual home of the bikini
But it was too much for conservative America, where Modern Girl magazine sneered: "It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing."

However, as the sexual revolution in the 1960s took hold, so did the bikini - except in Catholic countries, that is, where it was banned. It gained acceptance and clout and made its own contribution to the changing relationship between men and women.

Still popular

French fashion historian Olivier Saillard argues that the bikini imposed itself due to "the power of women, and not the power of fashion".

"The emancipation of swimwear has always been linked to the emancipation of women," he told AFP.

The emancipation of swimwear has always been linked to the emancipation of women
Olivier Saillard, fashion historian
Brian Hyland sung about an "Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini" in the 1960s and Playboy first featured a bikini on its cover in 1962.

Two years later, it featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, giving it an acceptable edge. It was no longer just associated with louche sexuality.

In the 1980s, the bikini suffered a dip in its popularity. Today, however, it is going strong again. US-based market research company NPD Group reported that sales of two-piece swimsuits nationwide jumped by 80% in two years.

Teenagers and young women are said to be the major buyers, but women over 30 make up an increasing share.


Some argue that the key to the bikini's re-found popularity is the ageing baby boomers who signed up to the fitness-obsessed culture. Kathy Peiss, a professor of women's history at the University of Massachusetts argues that this baby boomer group is "inculcated with the idea that they won't ever grow old".

For some, however, it is the other end of the market that causes concern.

Joan Jacobs Brumberg, author of The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, argues that the bikini is able to exert a noose-like grip on the psyche and physical health of girls and women.

"American girls and women have been stripped bare by a sexually expressive culture whose beauty dictates have exerted a major toll on their physical and emotional health," she writes.

There is, however, no doubt that the power of the bikini will be debated for many years to come.

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