Welcome to Bikini Bottom(s): The Dark History of the Bikini Swimsuit
What do the Atom Bomb, the displacement of an entire race of indigenous people, a nude dancer, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, and Sponge Bob Square Pants have in common?
I’ll give you a minute to think about it….
It’s the Bikini.
It’s a tiny little thing, but there’s nothing small about the dark and scandalous history of this swimsuit.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Two pieces were only widely accepted because of fabric rationing during WWII.
Before the second World War, women were expected to be covered completely from head to toe while they attempted to enjoy the day at a public beach or pool (which by the way, they were not even allowed at until the turn of the 20th century). To enjoy the new freedom of going to the beach, women were expected to cover their bodies completely, in many layers, and some even went as far as sewing weights into the hems of their pants and skirts so that the fabric would not rise and expose the forbidden ankle skin. Scandal was had when Australian athlete and actress rebelled these restrictions by proudly wearing a form fitting one piece outfit to the beach in the early 1910’s. Though her body was covered from collar bone to ankles, she was arrested for indecent exposure due to the form fitting nature of the garment. Her arrest caused such an uproar that officials were forced to relax the swimwear restrictions, allowing the full length, single layer, one piece to become the norm around the world. Twenty years later, this item was changed again due to the fabric restrictions and rationing caused by World War II. Women’s swimsuits were cut to expose their legs, shoulders, and collarbones, while keeping full coverage of the entire torso, hips, and chest. Swimsuit designers, taking advantage of the fabric rationing, pushed the limits even further and the two-piece swimsuit was created in the mid 1930’s, however we were still a far way away from what it would become.
The hydrogen bomb inspired the competition of two men to create an even smaller swimsuit.
Fashion is always a reflection of the zeitgeist. Whatever is happening in the world at any given time, fashion will be a representation of the overall mood, whether that mood is rebelling against the current events, or conforming to them. The two-piece bathing suit is no exception. In 1946, Parisian designer Jacques Heim revealed his version of the two pieces, claiming it to be the “World’s Smallest Bathing Suit”. Playing on his claim, he named the garment the Atome, French for atom, the smallest particle known to man. Noting that women were still rolling the hems of the suit further up their legs to maximize their tan, another French designer by the name of Louis Réard, debuted his version of the shocking garment. Louis’ version of the two-piece suit was even tinier. The bottoms sat below the bellybutton, exposing the entire torso of the wearer and the pieces of the bottoms were held together by a simple string across the hips. It was so scandalous that he had to use a nude dancer to model it since he could find no Parisian runway model that would go near it. Nineteen-year-old Micheline Bernardini debuted the skimpy two-piece design at a poolside show in Paris, and while it would eventually change the entire swimwear industry, the style was quickly banned across the globe as being far too immodest to allow. Despite the backlash, Micheline was gifted with over 50,000 fan letters praising the look, mostly from men of course.
The scandalous two piece was named after the Island used to test Nuclear Bombs.
Louis named his two-piece swimsuit Le Bikini, claiming it to be as momentous as the invention of the atom bomb, of which the U.S. had just begun a new round of testing on an island named Bikini Atoll only a few days prior.
Originally named Pikinni Atoll, the area is made up of a small cluster of islands within the Marshall Islands, located just north of the equator between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea. After WWII, the UN made the U.S. the governing power over much of the North Pacific, including the area that contained the Marshall Islands. Colonization of the area changed the name from Pikinni to Bikini, and as the location was chosen for development testing for nuclear weapons between 1946 and 1958. Because of this decision by the United States, the government “removed” 167 indigenous people from the island and relocated them to a neighboring island. Here, they began to die of starvation due to the lack of food sources available on the new island. Exasperating their displacement, on March 1, 1954, the U.S. set off a bomb that created an explosion 1000 times the size of the bomb used on Hiroshima, meaning the radiation caused by the blast made the location unlivable. In the 1970’s the U.S. Government returned close to 200 Pikinians to their ancestral lands, only to remove them once again in 1978 after it was revealed that they had ingested more radioactivity than anyone in human history.
Unaware of the tragedy that would befall the islands and the people that had inhabited them, Louis decided that the name of the island was the perfect representation of his teeny tiny bathing suit, as well to play on Jacques’ name for his own competing design. Jacques names his design after the tiniest particle in the world, and Louis named his after the island used to perfect the only thing at the time that could destroy that particle. While the design was scandalous then, it is praised today, however we have come to completely ignore the tragedy that the name of the popular item represents.
Bonus “Fun” Fact: Spongebob’s Bikini Bottom is also based on the tragic history of this island.
A cartoon conspiracy theory became popular on Reddit, when user Capmaster made a point that Bikini Bottom must be below Bikini Atoll. They supported this observation by pointing out that the radiation could have caused the mutations necessary for the goofy characters to evolve into walking, talking sea creatures, as well as the fact that chipmunks were often kept upon the naval ships in the areas during these tests, suggesting that Sandy Cheeks and her “protective suit” is a representation of that historic detail. It was also pointed out that Rock Bottom could be a crater caused by the explosions, explaining the even more macabre, strangely mutated citizens of Bikini Bottom. Lastly, one of the bombs was set off underwater and the photographs of that explosion are replicated repeatedly throughout the art for the cartoon.
Back to the bathing suit…
It would take decades before the bikini would be widely accepted by society.
Despite the hype caused by Louis’ debut of his design and the patenting of the name “Bikini”, it wouldn’t be until the late 1950’s that the style would even start to be accepted as a normal form of swimwear. One of the first to don the string bikini in public was Brigitte Bardot during a personal vacation in the 1950’s. Finally in the 1960’s, with birth control and second wave feminism fueling the sexual revolution, this would propel the bikini into the limelight as women everywhere found the style to be as liberating as burning their bras. Pop culture began spreading acceptance of the look with songs such as Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini”, and Ursula Andress’ role as the 1962 Bond Girl, who’s iconic white bikini costume was auctioned off for $40,000. They continued to rise in popularity as Sports Illustrated began to feature the style on their cover models in 1964, and Hollywood embraced the bikini in movie after movie throughout the decades. By the 1980’s the thong style was made popular by the Brazilians, however by the 1990’s pushback against the objectification of female athletes in two pieces caused a bit of a backslide on how much was acceptable to show in a bathing suit.
Now, bikinis of all shapes are widely accepted, but the bodies inside of them are not.
While the concept of a tiny two-piece bathing suit is nothing to debate over anymore, conversations around the bodies that wear them have taken over. In her article on the topic for The Good Trade, Audrey Stanton writes, “First women were told they couldn’t show their legs, then they were over-sexualized. Now we’re being told, we shouldn’t wear a bikini if we don’t have a flat stomach. It seems, just like many issues involving female or female-identifying individuals, that we can’t win.” So, the conversation around swimwear has shifted from how big or small the suit should be to how big or small the body inside of it should be.
But really, having a “Bikini Body” isn’t that difficult.
Step 1: Be alive and have a body
Step 2: Have a bikini
Step 3: Run the world with a middle finger up to anyone with a problem
Luckily, this conversation has reached a global scale, and it seems like the fashion industry, while admittedly still DECADES behind the needs of its average consumers, is finally starting to provide adequate representation of different body types and the swimwear we all want to enjoy regardless of how toned our abs may or may not be. In July of 2021, Sports Illustrated hosted a poolside fashion show, highlighting bikinis on models of every shape, size, and color, as well as included them in that year’s edition of their famous Swimsuit Issue. For the last five or six years, curvy and plus size women have been dominating the catwalks during Miami’s Swim Week, and brands like Cupshe, Good American, and La Blanca offer size inclusivity in their swim lines.
It’s a garment made of thirty inches or less of fabric, and yet, it is one of the most important and common items in our wardrobe. The bikini carries a lot of weight in its tiny frame. It simultaneously represents the destruction of an entire indigenous culture and female liberation. It is a subject of over-sexualized oppression, as well as a tool to express our freedom to love our bodies as they are. They are decorated in sparkly beads and sequins, detailed with straps and strings, and though they often come in bright, vibrant colors, may we not forget the dark and dirty history of the teeny tiny, two-piece bikini.