The rebellious history of the bikini

After scandalising the world, the summer wardrobe staple would go on to provide some iconic fashion moments.

The bikini is something you’ll see at just about any beach or pool these days. It’s a summer staple that many of us take for granted. However, in light of a proposed ‘bikini ban’ on the Gold Coast, we’re looking back at the rebellious history of how the bikini came to be.

In early February, a Gold Coast local wrote to the city’s mayor, Tom Tate, asking for ‘G-string’ bikinis to be banned when beach-goers were off on the streets and public transport. This immediately prompted a public discourse over a woman’s right to choose what she wears. Though Tom Tate has seemingly ignored the proposal for now, it’s just one of many times the bikini has prevailed over societal policing of women’s fashion.

Here’s a brief history of the bikini.

The Bikini Wars

Australians have been protesting swimwear laws and regulations as far back as 1907, but the bikini arrests of the 50’s and 60’s were the most pivotal. ‘The Bikini Wars’ was a term coined by the Australian media who were fervently covering the arrests of scantily clad women on Sydney’s beaches. Local governments such as Waverly Council enacted a series of rules and regulations which dictated the exact measurements that a bathing suit could be. If a woman were to defy these rules, she could be arrested or fined on the spot.

These strict rules saw hundreds of women arrested or ordered off the beach, including Hollywood starlet Jean Parker. According to the Waverly Council Library’s archives, over the 1961 October long weekend, more than 50 unnamed women were ordered from Bondi Beach due to swimsuit regulations. This seemingly prompted the council to overhaul these rigid restrictions, allowing women to head down to their favourite local beach without fear of reprimand from inspectors.

Jean Parker was escorted off Bondi Beach after debuting a scandalous bikini – which broke local beach protocols.

How did the bikini come to be?

As Europe greeted the first war-free summer in seven years in 1946, joyous beachgoers were flocking back to the water. And one inspired French designer came up with a new swimsuit to match the mood – but Louis Réard’s ‘bikini’ (named after the nuclear testing site Bikini Atoll), scandalised the fashion set and public alike.

Unveiled on July 5, 1946 in Paris, the bra top and two inverted triangles of cloth connected by string (for the bottom piece) was considered so risqué by French models that the only woman brave enough to model it was exotic dancer Micheline Bernardini.

Made from just 30 inches of fabric (Micheline held up a small tin at the photo call, which the swimsuit could fit into), it was printed with newspaper type across the suit, a nod to the headlines the designer was sure his creation would generate. Louis boasted at the time that the bikini revealed “everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden name” and was “just enough to protect the property without spoiling the view”.

Despite causing a worldwide sensation (and finding plenty of male fans), Louis’ target market – the women who would don his creation – simply weren’t ready to bare that much flesh. While swimwear had certainly become more liberated and fabric rationing during the war had seen the removal of skirt panels and other modesty material from swimsuits, the two-piece bathers seen on beaches and in film were modest, covered the hips and never, ever showed the navel. 

As such, the bikini was banned by Hollywood studios and declared sinful by the Vatican. Even more than a decade later, Modern Girl magazine proclaimed it was “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”. Still, Louis was unfazed. He kept tinkering with his design, keeping the skimpiness of the costume its biggest selling point, claiming that a two-piece swimsuit wasn’t a true bikini unless you could slip it through a wedding ring.

And eventually the bikini started to have its moment in the sun, quite literally. Its popularity soared in the ’60s as private pools sprung up in backyards and women could test out the look in seclusion. 

Brian Hyland’s novelty song Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini immortalised the swimsuit in song – and beaches around the world would never be the same. Hollywood, too, embraced the bikini on screen, producing va-va-voom fashion moments from Ursula Andress emerging from the ocean in a belted white bikini in the 1962 James Bond film Dr. No to Raquel Welch’s tattered fur and hide bikini in One Million Years B.C. (1966) – the poster for the movie featuring her in the swimsuit becoming more famous than the actual film.

When asked to reflect on his creation years later, Louis remarked, “In 1946, France had just come out of the war and people had need to live again. I felt I had to design something that would make people understand that life can start over and be beautiful.” And today, on beaches and at pools around the world, bold and beautiful women embrace this ethos in their own bikinis.

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