The Not-So-Skimpy History of the Bikini


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff Mom Never Told You from howstuffworks.com.

Cristen: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. This is Cristen.

Molly: This is Molly.

Cristen: Molly, this is something that I don't really like to say, even though it's fact, but it just sounds so cheesy when you say it out loud.

Molly: I can't wait to hear what you're gonna say.

Cristen: Molly?

Molly: Yes?

Cristen: It's swimsuit season.

Molly: I know. I groaned automatically. It was just engrained in me to start groaning.

Cristen: I know. A lot of times it's swimsuit season is followed by some kind of thing telling women about how they need to shape up and get rid all of their cellulite so they won't disgust people when they reveal their pale bodies to the world.

Molly: Yeah. There are all sorts of body issues here in saying that it's swimsuit season.

Cristen: But we're not gonna talk about body issues today. We're just gonna focus on those pieces of cloth that stir up both men and women alike every summer.

Molly: The bikini.

Cristen: The bikini.

Molly: I just want to give you a sneak peek of this podcast, where we're going with this. By the end of it, Cristen is going to point out that the bikini is the ultimate feminist icon.

Cristen: Wow.

Molly: I know. Is your mind blown? I didn't see that coming.

Cristen: I didn't either. I didn't know I was gonna do that. I've got some work to do in the next 20 minutes. All right. Molly, let's get started because the history of the bikini, as the title of this podcast implies, ain't so skimpy.

Molly: Yes. More coverage than you would have thought possible with the bikini.

Cristen: So many puns to be had in this episode. We need to go back in time, Molly. We need to go back B.C. I did not realize this, Molly, but the first recorded use of a form of bathing costume was in Greece in 350 B.C. There's actually a 4th Century mosaic wall in the Piazza Armerina, probably saying that - wish I could do an Italian accent, in Sicily depicting women wearing bikinis.

Molly: It's amazing.

Cristen: Yeah.

Molly: But as ancient Rome falls and the Greeks and all of the ancient civilizations die out, there comes the rise of prudishness and shame regarding ones body. No one went swimming.

Cristen: Yeah. They would go bathing, but not recreationally swimming like we think of swimming today. During the 18th Century they'd have spas where men and women would go to the public bath houses, maybe go take a steam.

Molly: It was very therapeutic. It was medicinal. It was not like let's go splash around in the water. So it may seem like we made a huge jump from B.C. to the 18th Century, but for a long time swimming was frowned upon.

Cristen: Yeah. It just wasn't something - it was not the quintessential summer activity as it is today, but by the mid-1800s, we have the rise of bathing as a recreational activity. Then in the early 1800s, with the rise of bathing or swimming as we can now call it, I guess, we have the emergence of swimwear. You can't just walk into the water with a full suit on and expect to have a good swim can you, Molly?

Molly: Well, that's what they expected the ladies to do.

Cristen: That's right.

Molly: Because first swimsuits for women were essentially ball gowns. Not really, but it was a lot of cloth. And to avoid the puffy ballooning of a skirt that could happen as you get in the water, they would put weights in the hems of the skirt to make sure that you weren't gonna show any shin. The shin is the most erotic part of the leg, so you must hide it all times. I don't know about you, Cristen, but swimming with weights on doesn't sound like much fun.

Cristen: No, it doesn't.

Molly: It sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Cristen: Yeah. Fun side note to all of this, we actually have the railroad to thank for all of this swimwear being invented because it was with the railroad that people could actually flock to the seaside's to go to the beach, thus popularizing the beach activities, thus necessitating the bathing suit.

Molly: Now, in addition to weighting down the swimming dress, they just went to all sorts of lengths to make sure that women never had to be seen in a bathing costume. There was this one cool thing that Slate pointed out where it was a dressing room on wheels. You'd put the woman in the dressing room on wheels, she'd put on her bathing dress, and they would wheel her in the little room down to the ocean, so she could get in the ocean without anyone seeing her. She could have a dip and when she was ready to get out, they'd wheel the thing up, pick her up, and take her back, so she could put her clothes on.

Cristen: This was actually called a bathing machine.

Molly: Yeah. Women just could not be seen on a beach.

Cristen: Yeah. it was a very private thing, which makes sense. This was the Victorian era. The height of prudishness. Then we have some women who are really tired of being weighted down in the water because, first of all, it was probably dangerous and probably really hard to tread water.

Molly: Well, as they pointed out, some women died.

Cristen: But then in 1907, we have Australian Swimmer and silent film star Annette Kellerman who has had enough.

Molly: Well, she needed to swim for therapeutic reasons because she had had polio and rickets. So she started swimming to make her legs strong and she was like, hey, by the way, it's really hard to make my legs strong when I can't move with all of these pantaloons and weighted down skirts and the like that you're making me wear. So she shows up in America on a Boston beach and wears what we would think of today as a pretty modest swimsuit. It was like a tank top that had no cutouts, so she's not showing any chest. She's showing bare arms, but she's pretty much covered from neck to thigh essentially.

Cristen: Yeah. This is in 1907 and she is arrested for her swimsuit at a public beach in Boston for indecent exposure.

Molly: Can you imagine?

Cristen: No. If that's indecent exposure, just imagine if those 1907 policemen could travel through time to a 2010 beach, yowser.

Molly: If only they had our time traveling capabilities that we have on this podcast.

Cristen: Yeah. Technology these days. Now, Molly, we would be remiss in this discussion if we didn't mention Agnes Beckwith and Annette Kellerman because they were two other women who really helped pave the way for allowing women to go swimming in public without having to worry about revealing their bodies and being arrested for indecent exposure and all of this stuff. Beckwith, for instance, raised in the water. She swam against other guys. She raised four miles from one bridge to Greenwich and she did that while wearing the full-skirted dress, petticoats, pantaloons, and stockings. Kind of demonstrating that even with all of that swimming costume on she could still keep up with the guys. She was just as strong as one of the guys. Then we also have American Amelia Bloomer who instituted the bloomers, we are aware of the clothing bloomers named after her, that she started wearing to replace having to wear the full skirt when she swam.

Molly: So now we're in the early 1900s, Cristen, and I think that the contribution of someone like Beckwith is she shows that swimming is a sport. It needs a sports like costume. So, yes, those full bathing dresses gradually faded away. Eventually those huge bloomer pants eventually faded away and you could wear respectably a one-piece thing that covered you from your neck basically to your mid-thigh.

Cristen: Yeah. And a lot of that had to do with Annette Kellerman's arrest because that set of a whole controversy of, well, should she have been arrested for that, is that really indecent exposure, and so that opened the door for saying that's ridiculous, women are drowning in weighted down dresses.

Molly: So that brings the rise of what is known as the maillot.

Cristen: Yeah. And by 1915 this was what American women were commonly wearing.

Molly: Now, let me just spell maillot for you in case you want to Google images of them because there are so many types of them. It's M-A-I-L-L-O-T. It's the French word for swaddling clothes. When I think of bathing suits I think of swaddling clothes. They kind of varied in size and style, so you could wear one that really covered you up, you could wear one that was a little bit more risqué. One pieces, the term one-pieces pretty much replaced maillot, but, essentially, if you're wearing a one-piece it's a maillot.

Cristen: Yes. Now, into the '20s and '30s we do have the emergence of the two-piece, not the bikini though, people. Two-piece is a separate thing from the bikini because these two-pieces covered up the navel. They would come up and sit pretty high up on your natural waist and then you would have a pretty solid covering for the top to make this two-piece. I love this. By the end of 1920s, we had a lot of different novelty suits that were associated with two-pieces, so you'd have a sailor themed suit or maybe a leopard printed suit. They really went wild with these new swimwear.

Molly: Provided you didn't see the navel. That's what I think is so funny. Everyone has a bellybutton, but largely Hollywood influenced this because the Hollywood Hayes Code prohibited actresses from showing their navel.

Cristen: Yeah.

Molly: So you think about all of those starlets who were wearing those two-pieces. They seemed so sexy, but they're not showing their bellybutton of all things.

Cristen: Now, I should mention that in the '30s we do have the arrival of the bow house, but the bough house is probably not something that you have ever really seen on many beaches because the bough house style was basically a pair of swim trunks with suspenders for the top. Very naughty.

Molly: It's Cristen's favorite bathing suit style.

Cristen: The bough house style.

Molly: Shall you be sporting it this summer?

Cristen: I shall not.

Molly: All right. It's the history of the bikini. We need to jump ahead to 1946. We just need to do it, Cristen.

Cristen: In order to make the leap to bikini, we've got to leap across the Atlantic Ocean and go to France.

Molly: Right. In France, two men independently of each other came up with the idea for the bikini. We've got Jacques Heim and Louis Reard, I don't know how to give that a French twist.

Cristen: Now, according to Kelly Bensimon, that name might ring a bell to any other fans of the Real Housewives of New York City, who wrote the book, actually a good book, called the Bikini Book that traces the history of the bikini. She says that attractive women back then were known as bombshells. We know this. Anything intense was atomic, so that bombshell atomic lingo of the day. So the two Frenchmen while they're deciding what to call their new skimpy swimwear, they decide to give them nuclear nicknames. Jacques Heim called his swimsuit the atome, A-T-O-M-E, like atom bomb, and then Louis Reard introduced on July 4th, 1946 a le bikini. That's because the United States had started atomic testing on the Bikini Atoll.

Molly: Right. So essentially the bikini is named after bomb testing.

Cristen: Yeah.

Molly: That's so weird.

Cristen: It is really odd. There is a connection between bikinis and -

Molly: Bombs.

Cristen: - bombs, atom bombs.

Molly: But he thought his invention was gonna be as revolutionary as the bomb.

Cristen: Now, I think we should say though that when Reard wanted to introduce his bikini to the public, he couldn't get models to put it on. It was too risqué, so instead he had to hire stripper Micheline Bernardini, that's my terrible French accent. Micheline Bernardini was a stripper who was enlisted to model it. Photos of her in this bikini just circulated throughout the world and the bikini became a sensation. First of all, of course, it was totally scandalized in the US and personally I would have scandalized it too because, no offense Micheline, but it kind of looks like you're wearing a sting diaper.

Molly: Yes. Cristen was not a fan of the first bikini.

Cristen: It was not the most flattering thing.

Molly: So, yeah, it was very scandalous, as Cristen said. No models would wear it. In the US, one swimsuit designer said that this was only French women because they were so short. It was the only thing they could do to even make it look like they had any sort of body at all.

Cristen: But then in the '50s, early '50s, we have the arrival of Brigitte Bardot. And Bardot looks fantastic in a bikini and she has very long legs. So there goes that argument out the window. Gradually they just become more and more popular.

Molly: Well, there is the rise of the private pool, so you don't have to go - the swimsuit comes into vogue because we can all take the railroads and go to the beach. Now you can swim in your own backyard and no one needs to see that you are wearing something that's considered vulgar and only worn by crude European types.

Cristen: But even in 1957, this is according to an article that we found in Slate, there was an issue of the magazine modern girl that said it's hardly necessary to raise words over the so-called bikini since it's inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.

Molly: So even though 1957, no girl would wear such a thing, by 1965 in Time magazine everyone reports wearing them. It's a very quick adoption. They go from being very vulgar to very accepted extremely quickly.

Cristen: Yeah. 1967 Time magazine features a survey claiming that 65 percent of young women had all ready gone over to bikinis.

Molly: Part of that, again, was Hollywood's influence. Once those codes were relaxed and women could, gasp, show a navel on the movies, think about the James Bond movie where she comes out of the water in that gold bikini. There are very strong images associated with bathing suits in the 1960s.

Cristen: Oh, yeah. Raquel Welch, One Million Years B.C. Yeah. That's quite a bikini bod. But with all of this talk about bikinis, Molly, there's one thing that we haven't talked about yet. That's Sports Illustrated.

Molly: Now, as I said at the beginning, you could make the argument, as Cristen did, that the bikini is a pretty empowering piece of clothing because it allows you to be free and go swimming and you're not hindered by your bloomers or your bathing machine. I do think that body issues aside that you can tie into it, it is a pretty cool thing that finally women were allowed to just swim unencumbered.

Cristen: Yeah. Because, once again, as it often happens in my podcast research, the notion that I had going into learning about bikinis was different than the notion that I had coming out of it. When we think of bikinis today, I feel like it's so loaded with body issues and fulfilling the male gaze and things like Sports Illustrated and over emphasis on breast size. All of this stuff, without really appreciating this history and the struggle for women to literally cast off all of this extra clothing, so that they could swim right alongside men and not be literally and metaphorically, Molly, weighted down by the constraints of heteronormative society.

Molly: Yeah. You get to go to the beach and actually enjoy your vacation because you're not stuck in your bathing machine that's rolling you to the water. You can play on the sand. You can swim, as Cristen said, without being metaphorically weighed down. I was pretty impressed with the history of the bikini, but then, as Cristen just said, we've got to bring Sports Illustrated into it.

Cristen: The first "Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition" came out in 1964, but it didn't have anything to do with a bunch of sports editors wanting to publish photos of scantily clad women. It really had to do with a lack of sports news to cover, so they were like, hey, we've got some extra editorial space to fill, I've got an idea, let's put in a picture of a woman in a bikini.

Molly: Yeah. It was all about going diving in the Caribbean. There was almost even a little bit of a story. They didn't even call it the swimsuit issue. It was just like, hey, here's some things you can wear the next time you're in the Caribbean being sporty.

Cristen: Yeah. It didn't actually become a stand alone product until 1997 when a very young, very buxom Tyra Banks and a very iconic photo graced the cover of the very first actual stand alone Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.

Molly: Now, I think the reason that people get so worked up about the swimsuit issue is that very quickly they abandon traditional ideas of what a swimsuit is. Like 1978, Cheryl Tiegs wears a see through, fishnet one-piece. So at that point you're like this is not really illustrating something I can wear while I'm being sporty on the beach. This is just you're trying to see through.

Cristen: Then in 1999 we have Heidi Klum standing there in a "painted swimsuit" which is actually Klum just standing naked with some tie dye paint all over her torso.

Molly: So I think that that's part of why it's so controversial is. If you can separate all of the body issues from the bikini and then just think, well, this is something I wear while I'm on the beach, like Gabrielle Reece. The volleyball player competes in a bikini. If you can take this thing that was like, hey, here is a healthy woman perfectly happy in the surf, let's have her hold her boobs and paint a bikini on her then, yeah, the bikini becomes this objectification of women.

Cristen: Yeah. I was really surprised, also, when I was researching this subject because, maybe it was just because I wasn't looking hard enough, but I did not come across any academic papers, as I was expecting to, really dissecting the feminism and the bikini and kind of this idea of women being objectified as sex objects when they put on this bikini. Like what kind of messages are we sending out to people, is it healthy for us to wear these things, all of this stuff? But then I came to the conclusion that maybe that's because it should be an empowering thing. I largely blame Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition for attaching all of these body issues to bikinis because I feel like it wasn't until Sports Illustrated that you have this cultural idea of what a woman should look like in a bikini. Not to say that Sports Illustrated is responsible for body issues that women have probably had throughout time, but I do think that it probably had a lot to do with feeling inadequate when you put one on, even if you're perfectly healthy and fit.

Molly: Right. I liked this quote from Slate by Brian Curtis. He wrote Sports Illustrated editors have always felt obliged to pretend that th e swimsuit issue was a source of massive national controversy. This is best observed in their insistence two weeks after the annual issue in printing correspondence from outraged parents and besmirched librarians. So here you have this magazine that 51 weeks out of the year is just football, basketball, baseball, etc. and then one week out of the year they're like half naked women, this is so crazy, we're getting banned in the supermarkets because people don't know what to do. I think that they themselves fed that sort of spectacle of, hey, this is crazy that we do this. Look how radical we are.

Cristen: And it also overly sexualizes the bikini. What started out as basically a uniform for a recreational activity, just like you put on jogging shorts when you're gonna go for a run, it turns it into something totally eroticized. When Molly and I were talking about this earlier, kind of coming to terms with, I guess, the message that it sends when you are walking down the beach in a bikini, kind of bearing all, it's kind of hard because I don't think that you can ever remove the erotic from a naked woman's body. I don't think that that's necessarily a bad thing. I think that that's part of it, but I think it is unfortunate that the bikini has become such a source of angst for women whereas it should be, I think, a source of empowerment.

Molly: Yeah. Well, on that note, I mean, I can't say it any better myself. We want your thoughts on the bikini. Our e-mail address is momstuff@howstuffworks.com. Is the bikini empowering? Is it the worst thing that every happened? Are you excited about summer?

Cristen: Are you excited that vintage one-piece maillots are coming back into style?

Molly: I know. You can find some really cute maillots this season.

Cristen: Very flattering. Well, send us your thoughts. Our e-mail is momstuff@howstuffworks.com. Or if you would like to share your thoughts with other listeners, you should head over to our Facebook page. It is facebook.com/stuffmomnevertoldyou or you can just search Stuff Mom Never Told You in your handy Facebook search bar, as you probably know.

Molly: Now, we'll do a little bit of listener mail. We're gonna summarize a little bit today and not read line by line just because we got a lot of e-mail on our Japanese condom sales podcast. Very mixed reactions. So let's get into some of them. So first let's start with a pretty good correction I think we got that we may not have defined all of the terms related to manga and otaku culture as narrowly as we might have and so we might have painted all people who read manga as people who slept with body pillows.

Cristen: Right.

Molly: That is definitely not true. You can obviously make, there are tons of genres and we might have just grouped them all together for ease of our own podcast, which is never the way we should do things here.

Cristen: Yeah. Speaking of the otaku, moe, and sleeping with body pillows, we were called out for jumping on a media trend that paints an unfair portrait of a very small group of men in Japan and extrapolates that to the entire population. That wasn't what Molly and I were trying to do. Admittedly, there were not that many articles that we found specifically about the moe associated with the pillow thing, okay, but there were a lot of articles going back to the mid '90s about this idea of Japanese men, some Japanese men, as herbivores versus carnivores, which we talked about. If you want more info on that, of course, you can go back and listen to the podcast, but I would like to clarify that our research did go back more than the episode of 30 Rock with James Franco and an article in the New York Times magazine.

Molly: Right. People thought it was just one weird story we had gotten out of Japan and we weren't taking Japan culture as a whole, but as you said, they go back many years. Now, let's also point out that the title was a little bit tongue in cheek because we got many e-mails that tried to explain to us all of the reasons why Japanese condom sales might be dropping. These included things like the aging of the Japanese population, the Japanese attitude towards work. One woman wrote in and she has a Japanese boyfriend. He has to work 60 hours a week and so she's like, of course, you sleep when you get home after that kind of work week. You may not be having as much sex. One person pointed out that the age at which Japanese youth lose their virginity is actually not that different than in the US.

Cristen: So, obviously, it's a complex issue. The point we were trying to make with the title was, admittedly, to get your attention, which it did, but it wasn't to try to - the answer to that question in the podcast was not Japanese condom sales have dropped because people read manga. That wasn't the point at all.

Molly: Yeah.

Cristen: So thanks to all of you though who wrote in in response to it. Whether you had criticisms or praise, Molly and I need t o hear it all. So, again, our e-mail is momstuff@howstuffworks.com. You can also follow us during the week on our Twitter. It is momstuffpodcast. Join us on there. Then you can finally head over to our brand new blog. It's called Stuff Mom Never Told You, surprise, and you can find that blog at howstuffworks.com.

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