The bikini: a test case in assessing our fashions

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William Hannegan, Contributing Writer

Discussions about fashion are often conducted in the abstract. A good example is the debate about female modesty begun by the article published in these pages a few weeks ago, and amped up by the online comments posted in response.

These discussions are usually not abstracted from particular items of clothing – indeed, the article and comments spoke of leggings and short shorts – but from the immaterial elements of those items: the designers, ideologies and culture that united to create that piece of fashion and which that fashion has in turn engendered.

These elements are important. Fashion is something designed – by particular people, of a particular character, with particular ideologies and within a particular culture. It is not something we simply create on our own, nor is it simply a collection of more or fewer fabrics and patterns that we wear. Rather, it is also a set of cultural norms and ideologies in which we participate, either by accident or choice.

Considering these cultural norms and ideologies can shed much light on our debates about fashion.

One way to uncover those cultural norms and ideologies is by considering the origins and history of a given piece of fashion, watching it come into being and subsequently develop.

Let’s take a test case, a mainstay in American fashion, worn by Christians and non-Christians alike: the bikini.

The bikini was designed by two Frenchmen, Jacques Heim and Louis Reard. Heim originally designed a much-fuller two-pieced suit, called the “atome,” which he advertised as the “world’s smallest bathing suit.” When the two designers rolled out their next product, the new “bikini,” they advertised it with the following slogan: “Bikini – smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit.”

They took the name “bikini” from Bikini Atoll, a nuclear test site for the atomic bomb. The two designers hoped to cause – by splitting much further apart the atome bathing suit to create the bikini – the same kind of backlash and unease that splitting the atom in Japan caused throughout the world.

The bikini made its debut in France in 1946. Heim and Reard, however, could not get any French models to wear it. So they had prostitutes model the bikini instead.

The suit was heralded by French papers at the time as a liberation from oppressive Christian mores. American fashion magazines scorned it. As late as 1957, Modern Girl Magazine said: “It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.”

The bikini was banned in a number of Catholic countries, including Spain, Portugal and Italy, and it was banned in many American states. The National Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization founded by the American bishops, worked hard to prevent the bikini from being featured in Hollywood. Pope Pius XII also condemned the 1951 Miss World crowning because Kiki Håkansson was crowned wearing a bikini.

The bikini eventually gained acceptance in the United States with the help of the same magazine features, cinema and music that marked the beginning of the sexual revolution.

The bikini made an iconic early appearance in the 1962 Bond film, Dr. No. Film historians, such as Martin Rubin, say that the display of the bikini in Dr. No was perhaps the “defining moment in the sixties liberalization of screen eroticism.”

In the same year, Playboy magazine introduced the first American magazine cover to display a woman in a bikini. Sports Illustrated followed two years later with an inaugural edition of its bikini-filled issue.

At roughly the same time, a number of songs began to feature the bikini, like Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

These cultural influences, along with a number of popular pinup girls, launched the bikini into the mainstream. These influences, however, are identified by historians as some of the key early heralds of the sexual revolution.

The bikini’s ascendancy in America, it seems, both helped fuel the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and was itself made possible by that revolution. The two movements – one in fashion, the other in sexual belief and practice – seem to coincide neatly.

They share the same champions (Bond, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, sexual icons like Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page, etc.), they share the same enemies (the mid-century Catholic Church, and many mid-century American Protestants), and they share many of the same pivotal events in their development.

History seems unambiguous: the bikini, from its inception in 1946, has served as a symbolic contrast to our “moralistic” Christian past. Love it or hate it, the bikini is a sexually-charged garment.

Such knowledge of its symbolic character and the culture it has engendered over the decades can give us a much fuller picture of the cultural and ideological import of the bikini. And with such knowledge, we can more clearly consider whether these cultural values comport with our own.

The same strategy applies to all of our reflections on fashion. By considering the history and origins of a piece of fashion, we can uncover the personalities, cultural norms and ideologies that intertwined to form that piece of fashion. And with that richer perspective, then we can make up our minds: Is that fashion something in which we want to participate?

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