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Rigors of Time Don’t Dampen America’s Love of the Itsy, Bitsy Bikini

As beauty standards shift, the two-piece of yesteryear is changing with the women who wear them

spinner image actress ursula andress in the ocean in a bikini during the film dr. no
Swiss actress Ursula Andress plays the role of Honey Ryder in director Terence Young's 1962 James Bond movie "Dr. No."
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Somewhere, in a box of family photographs sitting on a shelf in a closet in my mom’s apartment in Tucson, Arizona, there is a photo, likely a bit faded and slightly out of focus in that charming way only camera technology in the mid-1970s could master. I’m standing in a blue plastic kiddie pool in the backyard of my family home in southeastern Ohio and wearing a blue-and-white-striped bikini. It’s obvious from the expression on my face — mouth wide open and eyes nearly glinting — and the way I stood — hand perched on my left hip, which is jutting out ever so slightly — that I thought I was pretty hot stuff. I was wearing a bikini after all — something I’d seen my teenage sisters wearing to lie out in the backyard — and to me anything they did was the ultimate in cool.

That was the beginning of my love affair with the bikini — one that, looking back through photos, seemed to end on a beach in Mexico in 2016. It’s something that often happens to middle-aged women when our bodies begin to show the rigors of time.

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America’s love affair with the bikini, however, goes back a little further and, according to Daniel James Cole, adjunct assistant professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, shows no signs of ending anytime soon. He says that there are really two “origin stories” for the two-piece bathing suit we commonly refer to as the bikini.

Story one begins with French designer Jacques Heim, who was experimenting with women’s leisurewear. In the 1930s, Heim designed some two-piece outfits Cole describes as bra tops and a wrap around skirt over shorts — which “were pretty revolutionary for the time,” Cole adds. Then came World War II and France’s occupation. It wasn’t until the touring fashion exhibit titled “Théâtre de la Mode,” which visited sites in Europe and the U.S. to raise funds for war survivors and to revive the French fashion industry, that Heim’s creation, which by then he had named the “Atome,” was seen on a broader stage. 

“It wasn’t completely from left field for French women, but it was a little bit avant-garde,” Cole says, noting that while Heim continued to promote the design, it didn’t catch on immediately and adjustments were made to the design to make it “briefer,” Cole adds. “It was one of those things that got more press than it generated actual wearership. But it did get hype.” 

It was publicly introduced on the French Riviera in the summer of 1946.

This brings rise to origin story two. Around the same time, automotive engineer Louis Réard introduced a competitor to the Atome, which was even briefer than Heim’s design. He named his design the “Bikini,” in a nod to nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands of Micronesia — as well as a bit of a riff on Heim’s “Atome,” which was so-named because it was tiny, like an atom, and also to reflect the Atomic age and postnuclear boom at the end of World War II, Cole says.

“It’s whack that today we use that word [bikini] to reference something so joyful and charming and fun, but it’s based on the idea of nuclear testing,” he adds, laughing.

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Réard had one problem with his design that Heim was able to avoid. So “skimpy” was his “Bikini” that he was unable to convince any fashion models in Paris to model the suit in a photo shoot. “The mainstream models in the fashion industry refused,” Cole says. “So, in order to do a photo shoot of the bikini, he had to hire a stripper from the Montmarte!”  

It still took quite some time before the outfit we now see as ubiquitous with summer had its “Ground Zero” moment, Cole, coauthor of the book, The History of Modern Fashion, says, while admitting that he’s not fond of the idea of tying one point in history to a defining moment for fashion. That moment, which is listed as one of the “Top 10 Bikinis in Pop Culture” by Time, came in 1962 when Swiss and German actress-model Ursula Andress, in the role of Honey Ryder, emerged from the ocean wearing a low-waisted, belted white bikini in the first James Bond film, Dr. No.

“At that point, the bikini basically becomes the standard appellation of it and the standard name, and it basically becomes something that is relatively accepted in mainstream North America at that point,” Cole notes.

The Andress moment also coincided with multiple movements within the U.S. that helped fuel its popularity — namely beach/surf culture ushered in by the Beach Boys, the free-love/hippie movement, suntanning and, of course, the release of a certain song about an “Itsy, Bitsy, Teeny, Weeny, Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini,” by Bryan Hyland.

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In 2022, the U.S. swimwear and beachwear market is estimated at $6 billion and forecast to reach $9.3 billion by the year 2023, according to global market research firm Research and Markets. While those numbers aren’t broken down to reflect the amount of market share the bikini dominates, it’s safe to say that a Miller Lite commercial from March that knocks advertising featuring women in bikinis isn’t going to knock the bikini from its perch. In fact, the bikini appears to be only increasing its appeal as the body positivity movement continues to inspire designers to create swimwear in a wider range of sizes and styles to suit all body types.

“We are seeing the body-consciousness and beauty standard shifting,” Cole says, which is resulting in bikinis being worn by a wider variety of women now. He cites musician Lizzo, who often wears bikini-like performance clothes during her concerts, as a key innovator of the movement, but states that it’s a trend he’s seen emerging over the past 15 years. “And I think it has to do with the glorification of diversity that is part of it, too.”

Knowing this, I’m inspired to reevaluate my feelings about slipping into two-piece again. Maybe the love affair isn’t dead after all, but just on a break.  

Share your experience: Do you think it’s inappropriate to wear a two-piece on the beach? How about in advertising? Leave us your thoughts in the comments section below.

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