An Eye-Opening Look at the Ever-Evolving History of the Bikini

By Robin Mei - December 03, 2016


The Bikini's Very Humble Stone Beginnings

Credits: It wasn't called a bikini, it didn't really look like a bikini, but it was a glimpse to the garment's past.

The history of women and their use of bathing suits is much longer than often assumed. It goes back all the way to the 6th millennium BC. Archaeological evidence shows that women have worn some variety of bathing apparel in some of the oldest civilizations.

This image shows a statue widely known as Venus (or Aphrodite) in a bikini-looking garment as she prepares for a bath. Almost naked, there are details suggesting she is sporting some type of outfit.

Life in Ancient Sicily and Early Proof of the Two-Piece

Credits: Image of the “bikini girls” mosaic at the Piazza Armerina in Sicily.

Perfectly preserved mosaics of the famous Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily date from the 4th century. They mostly show scenes of everyday life in this fascinating place, situated in the middle of the island, near the city of Enna.

What we can learn from this collection is that the young women of that time were wearing bikinis while frolicking about and enjoying their time of leisure under the beautiful Sicilian sky.

Source: Villa Romana del Casale

Before Swimsuits, There Were Bathing Dresses

Credits: Bathing Dresses from Godey's Lady's Book, July 1868,

Bathing suits from the 19th century often look more like pajamas than bikinis. If we bear in mind the era and its values that glorified purity and modesty above anything else, the ladies in this image are quite lightly clothed.

Godey’s Lady’s Book from July 1868 suggested that women should cover their bodies from neck to ankles when swimming. Their bathing dresses were so bulky that they needed to put some kind of weights into them to prevent accidental ‘floating-ups.’

Source: Exploring the History of the Swimsuit with NYPL’s Electronic Resources

Swimming Becomes a Fashionable Sport

Credits: In its earlier days, the modern swimsuit was more about keeping a person covered up than it was about safety.

After decades of floating around in shallow waters, at the end of the 19th-century swimming slowly began to grow into a sports activity rather than just being recreational entertainment.

This change required a certain redesign of swimwear leading to outfits becoming slightly lighter and more comfortable in the water. The lower part of the garb was shortened to the knees, while the upper portion still kept the look of a dress.

Swimsuits Begin to Get Snipped

Credits: Image: Harpers Bazaar, July 1908

The beginning of the 20th century introduced new trends in women’s swimming suits. The July, 1908 issue of Harpers Bazaar announced a new era for swimming fashion when it came to their overall cut.

The most significant change was the replacement of the swimming pant by skirt-like cuts which covered the lower part of the one-piece outfit.

In their article ‘A New Bathing-Suit,’ they promoted a couple of their latest designs and advice for the young ladies who’re them.

Society's View of the Swimsuit Begins to Shift

Credits: Image: NYPL Digital Collections

The quantity of the fabric needed for sewing bathing suits was decreasing as societal norms shifted. The female figure was starting to show under outfits that still looked like dresses but were much shorter than ever and now often sleeveless.

This image shows a group of lovely ladies in the latest beach fashion of 1910. This photo was taken in New York City and the girls truly look beautiful, strong and fashionably forward-thinking.

Women and Their Swimming Outfits Hit the Olympics

Credits: Image: The Merry Dressmaker

It soon became clear that some of the ladies were taking swimming just as seriously as men. Swimming was their sport too and it was just a matter of time until they would be allowed to participate in the Olympics.

It happened in 1912, at the Summer Olympic Games held in Stockholm, Sweden.

This image shows the British women’s team dressed in their swimsuits, which were considered quite scandalous at the time.

Source: How Female Olympians Overcame Death Threats, Floor-Length Tennis Skirts, And More

Annette Kellerman Introduces a New Era of Design

Credits: Annette Kellerman in her self-designed form-fitting one-piece tank suit around 1910.

A major breakthrough in the history of women swimming fashion happened with the appearance of Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer, and her innovative approach to swimsuit design which is often described as the “second skin.”

Annette was a professional swimmer herself, and as such, she knew what was missing and what was unnecessary on the era’s swimsuits.

Kellerman introduced the first-ever one-piece swimming costume for women and didn’t mind having her picture taken wearing one.

Source: The Kellerman One-piece Bathing Suit

Modesty Laws Get Enforced

Credits: In Chicago a woman is being arrested for defying a Chicago edict banning “abbreviated bathing suits” on beaches. 1922.

Not everyone appreciated the change in swimsuit design. It seems that many city’s public officials were not really happy to see young women so “scantily” dressed.

The dissatisfaction was so strong that in the early 1900s the modesty laws and edicts were strictly enforced and anyone who did obey the rules risked being arrested.

That is exactly what happened in Chicago, in 1922. This image shows the arrest of a woman for defying the edict against “abbreviated bathing suits.”

Source: Women being arrested for wearing one piece bathing suits, 1920s

City Police Get Armed With Tape Measurers

Credits: A Chicago policewoman measures a garment. 1922.

Despite the clear rules that demanded women be “properly” dressed without showing too much of their skin on the beaches, swimsuits continued to “shrink.”

The form-fitting cut of women’s beachwear became more and more popular as the 20th century progressed, and the authorities became a little more lenient as a result.

The arms were first allowed to be exposed and then the legs, but still with strict regulations of how much exactly.

The Legal Swimsuit

Credits: Across America, women wearing the new fashion could expect to be stopped and measured.

Police were patrolling the beaches to make sure that everyone followed the rules and requirements of decent appearance. If they noticed someone “suspicious,” it was their duty to do the checking.

At that time, the bottom of the swimsuits had to be long enough to cover halfway down the thigh, and the authorities did not hesitate to do the measuring.

This image shows a policeman in action on the beach at the Tidal Basin in Washington, in 1922.

The Consequences for Failing to Meet the Standards

Credits: Two bathers being escorted off the beach by a policewoman. Chicago, 1922.

If the checks showed that the rules were violated, the consequences were clear: the individuals were physically removed from the beach.

These two young ladies, along with a few others in the background of this photo, were obviously wearing inappropriate costumes with “shockingly” short-shorts and thus had to be escorted away.

The police would simply take them by the arm and see them off the sandy beaches of Chicago, as seen here, and other U.S. cities.

Necklines Begin to Plunge and Hollywood Embraces It

Credits: Academy Award winning actress Jane Wyman sporting a two-piece swimsuit that bares the legs and midriff, 1935.

The 1930s introduced more freedom in beach fashion, and for the first time, bathing suits began to resemble more modern ones.

Necklines were lowered, especially at the back, the sleeves were gone along with the significant part of the sides. The most drastic change was cutting the swimsuits in two.

The new fashion was swiftly adopted by Hollywood celebrities. This image shows Jane Wyman, the Academy Award-winning actress, sitting at a beach in California, in 1935, wearing a two-piece swimsuit.

Source: What they wore on the beach back in the ’30s

The Two-Piece Bathing Suit Becomes a Pin-Up Standard

Credits: A pin-up of actress Esther Williams from a 1945 issue of Yank, the Army Weekly

The history of pin-up goes back all the way to the 19th century (even though the name that was used then was different), but the 1940s embraced the movement stronger than any period before.

That certainly had a powerful impact on the cuts of the swimming suits and the way beach fashion was presented or advertised.

This photograph from the October 1945 issue of Yank, the Army Weekly, is a great example of pin-up-style swimwear featuring Esther Williams, a movie star and synchronized swimmer.

Source: Esther Williams – YANK Pin-up Girl Oct. 1945

The Bikini is Officially Born

Credits: Unable to find a 'respectable' model for his design, Louis Reard enlisted nude showgirl Micheline Bernardini. Image: Keystone / Getty Images

On the other side of the Atlantic, European women were already wearing two-piece swimming suits in the 1930s, but the first real bikini was introduced in 1946.

It was the 5th of July when Louis Reard, the French designer, unveiled his latest creation — a truly daring two-piece swimsuit.

The promotion took place at the most popular swimming pool in Paris, the Piscine Molitor, and the model was Micheline Bernardini, a 19-year-old Parisian showgirl.

Source: Bikini introduced

America Meets the Two-Piece of the Future

Credits: Image: Harper's Bazaar, May 1947

Fashion designer Louis Reard chose the name “bikini” for his striking creation inspired by another striking event, the U.S. atomic test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean which was conducted only a few days before the big “bikini” reveal in Paris.

A year later, the bikini was officially introduced in the United States when Harper’s Bazaar featured this new swimwear fashion in 1947’s May issue. This is the photo that accompanied the article.

The Bikini Begins to Catch On

Credits: This was taken at a socialist student camp, illustrating the European embrace of the new two-piece design. Image: Claudia Neumann

The printed media in America embraced bikini fashion in the late 1940s, but it wasn’t until the late ’60s and early ’70s that the bikini really started to grow on the general public.

On the other hand, European women adopted this new provocative and comfortable wardrobe statement and started to wear it not only at beaches and pools but also on other (suitable) occasions too.

This image was taken in 1959, at the first socialist student camp of the Medical Faculty of the Karl Marx University Leipzig.

Pop Culture and the Bikini

Credits: Image: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

The adopters of bikini fashion started to show up on American beaches during the ‘60s. The growing trend was even celebrated in the hit song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini” in 1960.

By the end of the decade, more and more of young women were enjoying their beach time wearing nothing but the small two-pieces swimwear.

This image represents an excellent illustration of how U.S. beaches looked in those days. The photo was taken in 1969, on Pensacola Beach in Florida.

The Big Screen Makes a Big Splash

Credits: The bikini became part of pop culture through magazines, music and film.

Hollywood welcomed the bikini in a big way. Just two years after “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” Honey Ryder from Dr. No (played by Ursula Andress) walked out of the sea wearing only a white bikini and a knife.

The really shocking “boom” happened four years later, in 1966, when Raquel Welch shot the entire “One Million Years B.C.” movie in a “notorious” deerskin bikini, looking both savage and sexy.

Today's Swimwear Begins to Take Shape

Credits: Starting in the 1970s designs began to debut that resemble today's look more closely. Image: John H. White

Starting in the 1970s, everyone seemed to be wearing a bikini. The two-piece look became a common sight at the swimming pools and beaches of both Europe and America.

This image shows a woman enjoying her time on Chicago’s 12th Street Beach in the summer of 1973.

The photo was taken by John H. White, the American photojournalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, who photo-documented the life of the African-American community in Chicago during ’70s.

Source: Photographed: Summertime in 1970s Chicago

The Bikini's Forever Impact

Credits: Carrie Fisher had eyes popping out of heads for a legion of fans used to seeing puppets like Yoda in their Star Wars movies.

One of the most famous bikinis in the history of Hollywood is from “Return of the Jedi,” released in 1983.

When Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia, popped-up on the big screen in a tiny, full-metal outfit, Star Wars fanboys around the world were pleasantly stunned.

This two-piece costume became as popular as the movie itself. This gold bikini’s fame has never ceased. Each new cosplay convention adds a little more shine on it.

Source: Princess Leia And The Gold Metal Bikini: The Pop Culture Connections

The 1990s and Swimwear Reinforcing the 'Sex Sells' Concept

Credits: Pam Anderson, when she was wearing clothes in the '90s, was usually seen sorting this.

Once it started, the celebration of the bikini and similar tight-fitting swimwear has never stopped on the big screen, and soon found its way onto the small ones too.

Undoubtedly the most popular TV show in which almost everyone was more or less half-naked wearing nothing but red bathing suits was Baywatch.

Its star during earlier seasons, Pamela Anderson, still widely remembered as lifeguard C.J. Parker, made sure everyone on her beach was safe while also noticing her apparel.

Source: 15 Things You Might Not Know About Baywatch

The Bikini Today

Credits: It almost feels like in today's swimwear era people are more likely to be arrested for not showing enough skin

With every passing decade of the 20th century, the bikini gained more popularity, and by the time we reached the 21st century wearing one (and not only on the beach) was a widely accepted fashion norm — far from the days of women being arrested for showing a knee in public.

This little piece of clothing became a centerpiece of fashion shows, editorials, magazines and calendars, just like the one here featuring Kate Upton in the 2017 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.

Source: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition