Photo from WikiMedia Commons
This summer marks a milestone in the history of both seasonal couture and progressive women’s fashion. Along with heat waves, surfing jaunts and a bottomless pit of soft-serve, July commemorates the 65th anniversary of the bikini in American culture. Landmark for not only its sensual style and innovative approach to swimwear, the bikini represents a deviation from past conservative imagery and female vulnerability. It was created in 1946 by French engineer, Louis Réard, and quickly proliferated with its adoption by the likes of Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and a gamut of Hollywood pin-ups. Overnight, it was made a staple in the wardrobes of this country’s young fashionistas.
“In the U.S., the bikini became a symbol of new attitudes towards the body, and to the idea that more and more exposure was acceptable,” explains Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a professor at Cornell University, and author of books, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls and Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa. Brumberg parallels the more free-spirited societal norms of European countries, where women had been topless at beaches for years, as cultural contrast to the rate of progression in the U.S. “The bikini, like the burkha, is a symbol of women’s role in society, and it has multiple meanings both progressive and reactionary.”
The bikini, like women’s philosophy, has substantially transitioned throughout the years. Largely mimicking the styles of movies stars and models, the cuts and colors of swimwear reflect the age of the times, and, as body image shifts, more and more women are embracing the look of less. Babies wear them; petites wear them; grandmothers wear them. The cutting edge of youth coupled with the fresh, boundless energy of the year’s most delectable season makes the bikini a much sought after look, one associated with greater ease than day to day wear.
Nicole Fischelis, Fashion Director at Macy’s department stores, attests to the power of the bikini to echo social trends and themes.
“Swimwear in the last few years has had a strong presence on designers runways both in the U.S and Europe,” observes Fischelis, noting Michael Kors and Calvin Klein as prominent designers in the field. “It is now very much a fashion statement, especially when you see multiple options for cover ups. Swimwear has become a “lifestyle,” and not something you just wear to the beach. Over time, accessorizing your swimsuit has become very important, and it can be worn to the beach then off to a party. To get the look right you must have a new strappy sandal, colorful jewelry and the latest big sunglasses.”
After six decades, bikini styles have been cut, pulled, and redressed to accommodate a number of shapes and sizes. From skimpy and barely-there thongs, to halters, bandeaus and one-shoulders, changing looks have encouraged all women to welcome the loose lifestyle of summer. Fischelis points to the look of Brigitte Bardot in the ‘60s as the latest mode of choice—high-waisted, retro and less-revealing—as well as the development of a sexier one-piece alternatives, incorporating cut-outs, sheer embroideries and draping effects to keep pace with its racier counterpart.
Says Fishelis, “I think today’s silhouettes are a combination of clean, minimalistic shapes to almost retro shapes, but, it is much more about reinterpreting vintage in a modern way. The biggest invention is in the stretch fibers “Lycra,” and the development of high tech materials, which have enabled the industry to evolve with practical and amazingly comfortable materials.”
There will always be the Katy Perrys and Brooklyn Deckers of the world, a Marilyn Monroe of the 21st century and the envy of women everywhere. Their voluptuous shapes seem tailored for the string prototype. Nevertheless, with the advent of new formats and less conventional standards of body image, the bikini is being embraced in ways it wasn’t when it first came to inception.
“These days even women without beautiful bodies wear bikinis,” notes Brumberg. “This announces greater comfort with the female body, which is good; but, in other ways, it promotes the obsession with perfect bodies, a pursuit which undermines women’s psychological development, empowerment, and energy.”
As with all advancements, there are downsides. Liberation brings revelation and exposure, and underscores the abandonment of certain values embedded in societal structure. Within such winds of change, some are lost at sea. Others, however, find a greater voice.
“The ideal has changed over the course of the last century because of changes in media imagery, celebrity culture, films, etc.,” adds Brumberg. “Now plastic surgery is on the rise making it possible to change your body, make it “better.” I think the entire body—even its most intimate parts—is now a message board.”
The bikini offers quintessential garb to share such personal language, to display only so much and hint at what lies beneath. Sixty-five years and counting, it remains a prominent force in the advancement of contemporary women.