The Scandalous History of the Bikini

20th July 2022
Model wearing Pour Moi bikinis

It is one of our favourite pieces of swimwear, but did you know that the beloved bikini is steeped in history! Who would have thought that the bikini, a staple piece of holiday wear would have caused so much controversy over the years. From its use in ancient Greek and Roman cultures to the inception of the modern two-piece that received significant backlash, join us as we explore the fascinating history of the bikini.

Where did the bikini come from?

Model wearing Pour Moi bikini

When we think about bikinis, in all its forms, we think of it as a modern piece of swimwear. But we’re so wrong. In fact, the fashionable two-piece has quite the history. Traced as far back as 1400 BC in ancient Greece, there are depictions of women athletes in what can be thought of as our modern-day bandeau bikinis. Although it is thought that these were worn as an everyday garment rather than today’s purpose.   

The Romans are known for a lot of things, but bikini lovers are not one of them. However, historic evidence and artefacts show that like the Greeks, women athletes are depicted wearing top and bottom coverings, that resemble the modern two-piece. As the Roman Empire fell, so did to our beloved bikini. As we entered the Dark Ages, swimming was thought to have spread disease. It was a dark time for the two-piece, as no one needed this item of swimwear any longer. It wasn’t until the turn of the 18th century that the bikini as we know it made its appearance.

Introducing the 20th century bikini

Come the 20th century, the bikini took on a new function. As women were finally allowed to enjoy public beaches, there was a need for clothing that was fit for bathing and swimming. However, this type of swimwear was a lot more modest than the modern bikinis were used to. Strict dress codes for women meant that the ‘bikini’ looked something more like a full sleeve, full-length dress or chemise, known as a bathing gown.

It wasn’t until at least 20 years into the 20th century that women’s swimwear began to evolve. From full-length swimwear to more decorative and revealing ‘sun-suits’, these styles were more figure fitting than anything that came before. However, the inception of the modern bikini can be traced back to two men, fashion designer, Jacques Heim and Louis Réard, a mechanical engineer by trade who ran his mother’s lingerie business. Both men led the way in modernising women’s swimwear, with both developing two-piece swimsuits that exposed the navel area.

The rise of the modern bikini

Model wearing Pour Moi bikini

Since its debut in 1946 thanks to Heim and Réard and the bikini had become an iconic piece of fashion. The rise of Hollywood also helped cement its success with many actresses gracing the silver screen in two-piece bathing suits. As the decades past and the popularity of women’s swimwear on the rise, so did to the backlash. Countries across the world, many with a large religious population were banning bikinis at beaches. Surprisingly, bikinis were even banned from future Miss World competitions. Mainstream media also played a big part in this backlash. However, the popularity of the bikini couldn’t be stopped. Bridgette Bardot can be attributed to the societal acceptance of the bikini. Her choice to wear the bikini throughout the 1953 Cannes Film Festival after her appearance in the French film Manina, the Girl in the Bikini sporting you guessed it, a bikini, resulting in a greater shift in attitude towards the bikini. 

By the 60s, popular culture had accepted the swimsuit. If we needed more evidence of this, who could forget the infamous song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” by Brian Hyland. One of the most iconic swimwear moments came in 1962, with Actress Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in a white bathing suit in the James Bond film Dr. No. From then on, women’s swimwear was cemented in fashion history, with more movies taking advantage of the skimpy swimwear’s popularity throughout the following decades including films such as Star WarsFast Times At Ridgemont High, and who can forget the TV series Baywatch 

Since then, the bikini has continued to be further revolutionized as new styles have emerged from Brazilian bikinis, thongs, micro bikinis, and beyond as cultural attitudes around femininity, self-expression, and modesty have evolved. While existing in one form or another from pre-recorded history to the modern era, what is certain is that the history of the bikini has impacted and shaped the cultures that it exists within; from its artistic expressions like sculpture and paintings to its written works, songs, cultural and social attitudes. Time will only tell how the bikini will continue to do so.  

Whilst the rise of the bikini was seen as liberating for many women breaking away from societal norms it has also been argued that the two-piece sexualises women. For example, many athletes have argued against the fact of wearing two-pieces that resemble bikinis outwardly objectify women. For many female athletes they don’t get a choice in the type of kit they wear to play sport. 

Since then, the bikini has come a long way. A normal part of our summer wardrobes, the bikini has evolved in more styles than we could have ever imagined, from Brazilian bikini bottoms, micro bikinis and bandeau tops. For many the choice to wear a bikini or something similar has become a form of cultural and self-expression. At Pour Moi we believe that everyone should be able to wear a bikini. That is why our range of supportive swimwear, in a range of styles, colours and flattering features is available in all sizes.

All this bikini talk has got us inspired! If you're curious on what bikini style best suits your body shape, check out our tailored guide.

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