The bikini: this ever-present two-piece garment is almost certainly the most iconic item of swimwear ever created.
When asked about bikini history, however, most of us are unable to offer up much more in terms of an answer than “well – there were one piece swimsuits, and then someone invented the bikini.” You’ll likely be surprised to find out, then, that not only is there much more to the story, but the bikini is older than you might think. A lot older.
Believe it or not, the bikini can be traced back as far as the Stone Age, when an unknown sculptor crafted an image of a goddess wearing what seems to be a bikini-like garment. However, it was not until the Ancient Greek era that we find more solid evidence of this kind of outfit being worn. Artwork from 1400 B.C. depicts female athletes wearing two-piece costumes that are not dissimilar to those found on beaches and poolsides today.
Nearly 2,000 years later, in Ancient Rome, mosaics painted on the floor of an opulent villa feature more female athletes, wearing outfits that, without a doubt, display all the features of a bikini. It seems that the wearing of the bikini, in the form of athletic-wear, continued for a few more centuries, but then disappeared. Almost no more evidence of these bikini-esque creations exists before the 20th century.
This brings us to the part of the story that makes us the most proud. One of the pioneers in the creation of modern swimwear, and an early advocate for the right to wear more comfortable and practical clothing in the pool or at the beach was a proud Aussie!
Annette Kellerman was born in Sydney (Marrickville, to be exact), and became a record-breaking professional swimmer in her teens. No stranger to swimwear, Annette caused a scandal when she showed up at an American beach in 1907 wearing a self-designed, form-hugging one-piece bathing suit. This one-piece suit that covered her entire body caused such a scandal that Kellerman was actually arrested!
It was in 1913 – one year after women’s swimming was introduced at the Olympics – that a quantum leap occurred in the evolution of the bikini. Designer Carl Jantzen introduced a functional ‘two-piece’ bathing suit (although these two-pieces still offered full coverage of the torso).
As the years went on, however, and the idea of sun-kissed skin increased in popularity, the amount of material used to craft the swimsuit began to decrease. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, the most daring of fashionistas began sporting two-piece designs that displayed the more and more midriff, usually between high-waisted bottoms and substantial halter tops.
Believe it or not, the bikini owes a great deal to the post second world war material shortage. With governments ordering reductions in material usage, aprons, skirt panels and other additional swimsuit pieces soon were abandoned. Still, the status quo remained chunky bottoms most certainly covering the navel and a sizeable top until 1946.
Unsurprisingly, we have the French to thank for the creation of the first true bikini – as well as the spirit of competition. Two French designers, Jacques Heim and Louis Réard, were in an arms (or perhaps, more accurately, ‘legs’) race to create history’s smallest swimsuit. Heim struck first with the ‘Atom’. Named after the then smallest-known particle of matter, it was heady stuff for its time, boasting shorts that just covered the navel and an hourglass-shaped halter top with narrow straps.
It was Réard, however, that dared to go where no designer had yet gone before. With two triangles of materials attached by barely-there ‘strings’ of cloth making up each portion of the swimsuit, the modern bikini crashed onto the scene. He cheekily coined the name in reference to Bikini Atoll – the island which had recently hosted nuclear tests that attempted to split the atom.
The world at large wasn’t quite ready for Réard’s design. No model would wear the bikini at his media launch, and he eventually hired a 19-year-old nude dancer. And while the suit garnered thousands of fans, during the following decade it remained largely worn by high-class European women and actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren. It was not until the 1960s, when shifting values, a sexual revolution, and movies like “Beach Party” and “Dr. No” featuring the infamous belted white bikini normalised our favourite piece of swimwear.
The Progression of The Bikini
Since then, the bikini has grown to include a dizzying number of different styles and incarnations. At first, as acceptance became widespread, the challenge was to create the most revealing bikini possible, resulting in the true string bikini, the thong, and the g-string. After the initial “less is more” frenzy, cooler heads prevailed, and the focus returned to stylish options for women’s differing tastes. The high visibility of the strapless bandeau – one of the most popular alternatives to the classic bikini – could actually be called a resurgence as this is the type seen in the Ancient Roman paintings! Much like the bra of the same name, the push-up bikini provides extra support and is favoured by women wishing to accentuate their bust line.
As we all know, fashion is cyclical – and in keeping with that trend, we have seen a return to older styles. The tankini, which was hailed as a ‘major innovation’ when it debuted in the 90s, certainly owes much to earlier, more modest designs.
The one-piece has certainly made a strong comeback, no doubt in part due to the increased palette it offers for high-fashion designs.
However, there’s a reason why the bikini has persevered for thousands of years – for the feel of the sun, sea and sand on your skin (and a sexy look to boot), nothing tops a bikini! Contessa Volpi is one of Australia's top designers of functional yet high fashion swimwear - take a look at our luxury and sustainable Italian Lycra selections!