This holiday weekend, Americans will be cavorting on the beach, many of them in swimwear that covers as little as possible. In 2006, Julia Turner traced the history of the bikini to explain its exploding popularity. The article is reprinted below.
Sixty years ago, the world’s first bikini made its debut at a poolside fashion show in Paris. The swimsuit is now so ubiquitous—and comparatively so demure—that it’s hard to comprehend how shocking people once found it. When the bikini first arrived, its revealing cut scandalized even the French fashion models who were supposed to wear it; they refused, and the original designer had to enlist a stripper instead. The images below illustrate how the bikini slowly gained acceptance—first on the Riviera, then in the United States—and became a beachfront staple.
When the bikini was unveiled in 1946, it was by no means the first time that women had worn so revealing a garment in public. In the fourth century, for example, Roman gymnasts wore bandeau tops, bikini bottoms, and even anklets that would look perfectly at home on the beaches of Southern California today.
At the turn of the 20th century, though, such displays would have been unthinkable. Female swimmers went to extraordinary lengths to conceal themselves at the beach. They wore voluminous bathing costumes and even made use of a peculiar Victorian contraption called the bathing machine, essentially a small wooden or canvas hut on wheels. The bather entered the machine fully dressed and donned her swimming clothes inside. Then, horses (or occasionally humans) pulled the cart into the surf. The bather would disembark on the seaside, where she could take a dip without being observed from the shore.