A high waist bikini from the 1950s may be considered retro or vintage but that wasn’t always the case. The modern bikini is an invention of the 20th century brought upon by changing shifts in society and fashion. The swimwear of women in the early 20th century was very different than today. The shift was accelerated in mid-century by the advent of the bikini that rocked the fashion world with the power of the atomic bomb after which it was named.
Throughout history swimming and bathing many times were done nude. There are examples from Greek times, like the murals in Pompeii of the Roman goddess Venus, or other areas around that time, where you will see women wearing what look like the high waisted swimwear from 1969. Then over the centuries wearing clothes while swimming went out of fashion until the 18th century when women wore swimsuits made out of long dresses called “bathing gowns” that had weights as parts of the hems so that the gowns did not float up in the water. By 1910 attitudes were changing towards women swimwear and form-fitting single swim pieces became popular, but only after Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer and performer was put into jail after she wore a form-fitting one piece suit on a Boston beach in 1907. The inclusion of women’s swimming into the Olympics and the changes in fashion it inspired was one of the reasons why women’s swimwear, including high waisted bathing suits, became increasingly revealing and practical over the years.
In the summer of 1946 two Frenchmen dropped the equivalent of the atomic bomb on the fashion world. Jacques Heim, a Parisian fashion designer introduced in May 1946 a two piece bathing suit that he advertised by hiring skywriters to write on the skies of the Mediterranean that “Atome” was the world’s “smallest bathing suit.” Another Frenchman, Louis Réard, a car engineer who at that time was running his mother’s lingerie boutique in Paris, came up with a slightly modified design and named his creation the bikini after the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific where nuclear test were taking place. Reard advertised his creation by having skywriters write over the skies of Paris that the bikini was “smaller than the smallest swimsuit.”
Reard named his creation the bikini because he knew it would cause excitement on the fashion and gossip worlds just as explosive as the atomic bomb. He was right. What he didn’t predict was that at first no model wanted to wear the bikini, so he got a nude dancer named Micheline Bernardini, who was 19 at the time and worked at the Casino de Paris, to model it on July 5 1946 at Piscine Molitor, a public pool, in Paris. This publicity stunt catapulted the bikini to success; Bernardini also fared well and received over 50,000 fan letters.
In the 1950s the high waist bikini became very popular and seen on many beaches. In the 1960s the designs started to feature floral patterns. Also, the rebellious attitudes of those times redesigned the bikini to be more skimpier and provocative. This has spurred a revolution in bikini design that created see-through bikinis or even very minimalist bikinis. Wearing a bikini became a form of sensual self-expression and made it into popular culture in movies, magazines, and fashion pageants. The bikini as a fashion symbol was immortalized by setting world records. The most expensive bikini, unfortunately not a high waist bikini, was made in 1977 by Mappin and Webb of London out of platinum for Miss United Kingdom for that year’s Miss World beauty pageant. After it fetched US $9,500 at auction it won the Guinness World Record for the most expensive bikini. The bikini is still fairly young and has plenty of time to set more world records.