It’s that kind of thinking that holds people back for thousands of years.
Diana Vreeland had been a Harper’s Bazaar columnist for a decade when she made this passionate statement in 1946. But what was she talking about? Was it social injustice, political upheaval or economic catastrophe? No, it was none of those things. Vreeland was talking about—the bikini! She labeled it the swoonsuit and claimed it revealed, “everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden name.” Her ire was raised because Italy, Spain and Portugal had banned it from their beaches and the U.S. was doing everything it could to ignore it. The suit had been invented earlier in the year by Louis Réard while vacationing in St Tropez. Two-piece swimsuits had gained popularity during the 1940s but the suits were generously proportioned and exposed only a tiny band of midriff. On the beach, Réard noticed women rolling the tops of the bottoms down, and the bottom of the tops up. An idea was born, and back in Paris he produced the first bikini. It was certainly simple; two triangles on the bottom and two on top. It was also shocking—even by French standards. Unable to find a model willing to wear it, Réard resorted to hiring a stripper for the bikini’s Parisian debut at the Piscine Molitor public swimming pool.
Réard was never entirely clear about why he called the swimsuit a bikini. The Bikini Atoll was the site of nuclear testing at the time and a rival designer had just released a swimsuit called the Atom, so that connection seems natural. Other explanations ranged from the apocalyptic (it’s what people will wear after a nuclear blast) to the market driven (sales will be as explosive as the bomb). But the durability of the name probably has more to do with the fact it’s a word that’s fun to say and fun to hear. Unsurprisingly, sales were slow at first, but once worn by Bridget Bardot; it seems every woman wanted one. And so the bikini marked the start of an exciting new fashion trend—or did it?
Six years after the bikini went on sale, a team of archaeologists were slowly unearthing what they believed was a 4th century Roman hunting lodge. As they scraped away centuries of dirt, they made a surprising discovery. Covering the lodge’s floor was a mosaic of ten women athletes wearing—you guessed it—bikinis! As far as fashion goes, it appeared the 20th century was just catching up with the Fourth. But not so fast! Thirty-seven years after the discovery of the bikini mosaic, archaeologists in Crete found a Minoan wall painting of bikini-clad women dating to 1600 BC.
So it seems the bikini has been around for a very, very long time. In one sense we’re reminded of the adage, “what’s old is new again.” Fashions and so many other aspects of our lives, come, go and come back. But on another level, we might pause to consider the things that scandalize us. They’re often unimportant issues like skirt length, hair length, beards, tattoos—the list goes on and on. As a trend develops people get worked up and see signs of the imminent collapse of civilization. A lot of noise, negative energy and ill-will get generated before—amazingly—the scandalous becomes the norm and everyone pretty much gets on board. Think about that when you find yourself getting upset over the latest cultural Armageddon. Make sure the issue is worth the effort. Put it in perspective by taking a trip to the pool and pondering the implications of scandalous swimwear with a 3,600 year-old pedigree. At pool level, things might not seem so bad after all. —Ebert