Monday, May 31, 2010

Apple #459: Bikinis

Since I already have an entry about Memorial Day, I thought I'd do today's entry on bikinis.  Naturally.

This past week, the subject of bikinis came up in conversation.  A few quips were traded back and forth, most of which involved the word "bikini."  Nerd that I am, I of course began to wonder about the origin of that word.  I vaguely recalled that the Bikini Islands had something to do with it.  But what, exactly?

  • In 1946, the first modern bikinis were introduced to the fashion world.  As often happens, two different designers came up with the same idea at the same time.
  • It's important that this happened in 1946 because this was the year after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been bombed using the atom bomb, thus ending World War II.  In 1946, the US military continued their testing of atomic bombs on the Bikini Atoll, or the Bikini Islands.

The Bikini Atoll is considered part of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific.
(Map from Bikini Atoll

Here's what the Bikini Atoll looks like up close. It's actually an atoll plus 23 islands.  There used to be 26 islands.
(Map from Bikini Atoll)

  • The bombs that the US military detonated in the Bikini Atoll were of about the same strength as the one dropped on Nagasaki.  Those test bombs wiped out 3 of the Atoll's islands entirely.
  • So in the middle of this uber-scary stuff, those two French fashion designers came up with their new bathing suits.
  • I don't mean to suggest that they were entirely facetious.  It's a pretty natural human response, in the face of something so enormous it could destroy the entire planet, to focus instead on something diverting, delightful, utterly human, and so obviously in favor of procreation.
  • But maybe they did have a slightly skewed opinion of the weightiness of fashion design. 
  • The first designer, Jacques Heim, called his two-piece bathing suit the "Atome."  The name was supposed to suggest that the bathing suit was small, like an atom. He hired skywriters who proclaimed the Atome to be "the world's smallest bathing suit."
  • The second French designer, Louis Reard, was originally a mechanical engineer.  He called his two-piece bathing suit the "bikini."  He named it after the Bikini Atoll, and the idea was that the effect of this bathing suit would be as earth-shattering as the atomic bombs being tested there.
  • Reard also said his suit was "smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world," meaning that it was even smaller than the Atome.  His version of the two-piece soon superseded the Atome as the more popular of the two.
  • The bikini was first shown on a fashion runway in Paris that summer.  American correspondents covering the show were shocked but also tantalized by the revealing bathing suits.  They predicted that the bikini would be too scandalous for Americans to adopt, but only one year later, some American women were already wearing bikinis.

Bikini from the Steven Sally Collection, from around 1950. The bottoms of bikinis tended to be rather high-waisted, like this one, for the first couple of decades.  For some reason, exposing the navel was considered the most taboo thing of all, and it was very carefully covered.
(Photo from Bikini Science)

In France, however, the rules were a little different. This is Brigitte Bardot in Cannes in 1953, when she was 19. She became famous because she wore a bikini the previous year in a film called Manina, La Fille San Voile, later known as The Girl in the Bikini.
(Photo from Bikini Science)

  • It wasn't until the 1960s, however, that the bikini really took off.

I suspect it was movies like Bikini Beach and Beach Blanket Bingo which showed wholesome Annette Funicello wearing bikinis that helped them go mainstream.
(Image from The Webcomic List)

Meanwhile, other movie stars were wearing entirely different kinds of bikinis. Here's Raquel Welch in her famous Cave Girl bikini in 1966. Maybe this is what people actually would wear in a postapocalyptic world, when your clothes might be exploded to ribbons.
(Photo from Bikini Science)

  • Reard also said of bikinis: "A bikini is not a bikini unless it can be pulled through a wedding ring."
  • In the 1970s, the sexual revolution touched off all kinds of changes. In the world of bathing suits, nude and topless sunbathing became the buzz.  Interestingly, though, the iconic bathing suit posters from this era -- Farrah Fawcett and Bo Derek -- featured one-pieces, not bikinis.

Cheryl Tiegs in the 1974 issue of Sports Illustrated kept the bikini in the popular eye.  This suit sold for $20.00.
(Photo from Bikini Science)

Then came the string bikini in the late 1970s.  They weren't quite this string-y at first.  This one is from Brazil, 1979.  The string bikini has evolved further to include G-string bottoms.
(Photo from Bikini Science)

  • Pretty much since the 1960s, styles of bikinis have embraced both the Annette Funicello and the Raquel Welch options.  That is, you can just as easily find girl-next-door bikinis as you can find the Brazilian beach bomb bikinis.

Here's a current girl-next-door type bikini from Land's End.  They have lots of different styles and sizes of tops and bottoms that you can mix and match.

Bikini Shopping Tips
  • It may make you feel better to know that when the Sports Illustrated swimsuit models are preparing for that oh-so-famous swimsuit issue, they each try on hundreds of different bikinis.  Even women with legs up to here and stomachs so flat you could iron on them have to try on lots of suits before they find ones that look the best on them.
  • Most women assume that if something isn't their best feature, they should cover it up.  In the case of swimsuits, however, that's not always the case.  Say you think your hips are too big.  You might think that you should try to hide them by wearing a swim skirt.  But actually, that extra fabric which often flares out will only draw more attention to your hips.  Choosing a suit that's cut higher in the legs will actually make your legs look longer and your hips appear slimmer. 

See how the extra fabric over her right hip draws your eye to it and makes it look larger?  This woman certainly does not have large hips, either.
(Bathing suit from Macy's)

  • Choose dark colors to slim or understate areas you want to downplay and lighter colors where you want to draw the eye.  If you're still trying to hide those hips, choose a dark colored bottom and a lighter colored top.

Here's another version of the same idea.  See how you notice Rihanna's hips way before you look at her top?  That's because of that bright neon yellow.
(Photo from CelebPretty)

  • Similarly, prints on a dark background are more slimming than lighter-background prints.  
  • Like light colors, shiny fabrics draw the eye and are less slimming.  Matte or "flat" fabrics are more slimming.
  • If a bathing suit puckers or ripples or gathers in places where it's not supposed to, it's the wrong size.  If it's supposed to ripple or gather someplace, keep in mind that those folds in the fabric will call attention to that spot.
  • Bikinis that are numerically sized and which allow you to purchase the top and bottom independently will give you a better fit.  Bikinis sized simply S, M, L are less likely to fit the specifics of your shape.
  • Move around in the dressing room to see how well the suit stays with you. Straps and leg edges should lie comfortably on the skin.  They shouldn't dig in, nor should they gap or slip.
  • When you lift up your arms, if the top creeps up to show the bottom of your breasts, find a larger size or a top that offers more coverage.

I'm afraid this is a Bikini No. Obviously she's hanging out of it, but in addition to that, the gradations of color aren't doing her any favors. The black is sort of erasing her curviest part while the white is drawing attention to a less interesting part of her anatomy.
(Photo from

  • When you sit down, the leg openings of the bottom should not gap.  If you have to keep digging the suit out of your crack, either the suit is too small or you are not comfortable wearing that level of coverage.  Choose something that fits both your body and your taste.
Katy Perry on vacation in a green bikini that suits her very well. Go, Katy!
(Photo from KROQ)

  • In the end, I think, the bikini won.  The atom bomb has been growing less and less popular, is facing various forms of deletion and erasure, while the bikini is only gaining in popularity, variation, and style. 
  • One might even say we are successfully fighting the despair of the atom bomb, one bathing suit at a time.
Sources, The History of the Bikini
Jack Niedenthal, Bikini Atoll, A Short History of the People of Bikini Atoll
eHow, How to Fit a Bikini


  1. Hey, love your blog. I found it today looking for sinkholes. I bookmarked it and I'm planning to read it regularly.

  2. They just keep getting smaller & smaller; wish my body did the same. :o)

  3. Haha, Pam, I totally agree! :)


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