From banned on the beach to summer staple: Charting the origins of the bikini

Posted by
Harriet Hall
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

When Louis Réard designed the first bikini in 1946, the world was so shocked and repulsed by the idea of a woman wearing something revealing in public that models refused to wear it. Instead, Réard employed an exotic dancer to don his innovative design.

But seven decades later, we can’t imagine packing for the beach without a bikini. In fact, it can sometimes feel like we spend more hours wearing a bikini than actual clothes on holiday – a point made hilariously by Lena Dunham in Girls, when Hannah goes shopping in what’s essentially just waterproof underwear.

New controversies surrounding the bikini have arisen in recent years, with the garment sometimes being used to body-shame women. But the trusty bikini always triumphs in the end. After all, we all know that to get ‘bikini body ready’ all you really have to do is… put a bikini on your body. And although the one piece has been having a real moment of late, the bikini will always be a style classic.

The story of the bikini, like so much of fashion history, is the story of women’s physical emancipation, a story that tells of shame surrounding the female form – and its eventual liberation. Here’s how the two-piece came about…

Ancient Rome

Funnily enough, we were much more liberated back in the day. In Roman times, women swam freely in their birthday suits in public baths. And while they were women-only establishments, swimming nude was the most comfortable way for women to enjoy the water.

When not in the pool, Roman women would simply cover their breasts with bandeaus and wear a knicker-like wrap – much like a bikini.


Improved infrastructure took the wealthy to the seaside in the early 19th century, and swimming became a perfect day out.

But swimwear in the 1800s was completely different to today’s slithers of fabric. In an age when women dressed in demure crinolines and corsets with the sole aim of achieving an hourglass silhouette, the idea of skimpy swimwear was a real no-no.

Swimming garb consisted of large coverall dresses, belted at the waist and worn over bloomers or stockings. Made from heavy, thick wool that weighed down the wearer when wet, the ensembles ensured that no flesh was exposed and nothing would ride up during a sudden wave. Unsurprisingly, they also ensured that swimming was a real struggle.

Even with these all-covering suits, extreme measures were sometimes taken to ensure that women weren’t seen in their bathing suits. Horse-drawn changing rooms on wheels – known as ‘bathing machines’ – would take women directly into the sea, so their modesty remained intact as they went in and out of the water.

And of course, having a tan at this time was considered the shade of manual labour. A swimsuit with full coverage helped wealthy women to maintain the posh pallor that was all the rage.


By the 1900s thick swimming dresses and trousers had evolved into fewer layers. But the world still wasn’t ready to see women’s exposed limbs in the water.

In 1907, Annette Kellerman became the first woman to swim the Channel, but was arrested for wearing a clingy one-piece that exposed her arms and legs. Despite this blemish on her previously clean record, Kellerman’s daring – and practical – choice enabled her to swim without being weighed down with heavy layers. Her success sparked a new awareness of the need for sports-appropriate swimwear.

With increasing numbers of women competing in the Olympic Games, the heavy woollen swimsuit eventually gave way to the first two-piece: a waterproof shorts-and-T-shirt ensemble that caused a bit of a furore before it was accepted as standard swimwear.


Flappers of the Roaring Twenties were all about celebrating liberation, with their short shift dresses and public make-up application (those wild things).

So it’s unsurprising that it was the women of the twenties who abandoned sleeves on swimsuits and raised hemlines to the higher thigh, while nipping swimwear in at the waist for a more comfortable and flattering look. Imagine a sort of swimming romper suit, and you’re halfway there.

Travel also became more accessible in the twenties, and more women began taking part in sports. These aspirational activities exposed the skin to the elements, meaning that it was no longer just fieldworkers who were getting tanned.

Suddenly, a bronzed complexion became a sign that you could afford a place in the sun – and the skimpier the swimwear, the more likely you were to get a good tan.


As textile technology improved, Lastex was introduced into the fashion world. This elasticated fabric offered a sporty alternative to the scratchy, heavy wools of earlier swimwear.

Lastex swimsuits were clingier and more streamlined, making it easier for women to move through the water – but retained the old-fashioned shorts and T-shirt aesthetic.


The fabric rations of the Second World War challenged designers to try novel approaches to fashions. In the 1940s the first bare midriff was seen in a peekaboo-style swimsuit, and cuts revealed more of the legs and chests, as they tried to reduce the amount of fabric in all clothes.

But it was in 1947 that the real change came about, as the bold Louis Réard adapted just 30 inches of teeny tiny fabric to create the most outrageous swimming attire yet: the bikini.

In a rather dark pun, Réard named his design after Bikini Atoll, the site in the Pacific Ocean where the US was hosting its atomic bomb testing. The idea was that his design would be explosive – and it certainly arrived with a bang. Another designer, Jacques Heim, had also created a bikini he called the Atome, the same year, but his design was overshadowed.

The world was outraged by the bikini. The Vatican condemned it and several countries including Italy and Spain banned it, considering it indecent. The exotic dancer, Micheline Bernardini, who first wore the bikini, would go down in history.


In a move that would bring the bikini mainstream, Brigitte Bardot wore one to the beach at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. Snapped by paparazzi, Bardot’s bold moment inspired more of Hollywood royalty to follow suit – including Marilyn Monroe, who was soon photographed wearing a two-piece while performing cartwheels on the beach. It was the decade of Hollywood sexuality, and bikinis fitted the ideal perfectly. 

Not everyone was thrilled, however. In 1951, the Miss World contest deemed the bikini too inappropriate even for a beauty pageant, and banned it from the contest. 


As with so many fashions, it was a moment on the silver screen that changed it all for the bikini. Ursula Andress emerged flawlessly from the sea as Honey Ryder in an iconic scene in James Bond’s 1962 Dr No, wearing a white bikini and knife holster belt – a moment that would be emulated in 2002 by Halle Berry in Die Another Day.

The sixties were also the decade that boasted everyone’s favourite ode to the bikini. Bryan Hyland’s Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini gave way to similarly admiring songs by the likes of the Beach Boys, and by the mid-decade, magazines were including bikinis in their photo shoots. Sports Illustrated published the first of its infamous swimsuit editions in 1964, featuring a bikini-clad model on the cover.

The same year, Austrian-born American designer Rudi Gernreich unveiled his topless bikini – designed for the ultimate all-over tan. Needless to say, the world wasn’t ready for his Monokini, and it was swiftly denounced by the Vatican.


By the seventies, all squeamishness at the idea of exposing too much of the female form had been abandoned. The decade saw the birth of the thong bikini in Brazil and the south of France. Again driven by designer Gernreich, the thong bikini took a while to catch on, but was soon seen on perfectly tanned buns worldwide.


The power suits of the eighties were reflected in the decade’s preferred bikini style, as power bodies moulded by aerobics were seen, tanned and toned in fluorescent high-leg bikinis.

Needless to say, we can blame the high-leg styles of the eighties with the introduction of the bikini wax, which made swimsuit season that bit more… painful.

And of course, the same decade laid claim to Carrie Fisher’s now iconic gold bikini in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983). Her Princess Leia two-piece launched a thousand Halloween costumes – and inspired that famous moment in Friends.


As we know all too well, today’s bikini is all about anything goes. Led by the body positive movement, we proudly wear whatever we want on the beach and elsewhere. High street stores have began introducing plus-size styles, and the one piece swimsuit has returned for another life. But the trusty bikini will always be here to stay – and, in 2017, Reard relaunched its iconic design, so we can all wear a (very) little piece of history. 

Share this article


Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall is a former Stylist contributor.