What does nuclear testing, fabric shortages during the war and Olympic volleyball teams have in common? The bikini, of course.
This popular beachwear, which is diminishing in size by the decade, came onto the fashion scene thanks to the French engineer Louis Reard. Despite the fact that the bikini is a two-piece swimsuit and the word appears to include the prefix “bi” (meaning “two”), the bikini is actually named after Bikini Atoll, one of the group of islands which makes up the Marshall Islands. This is where the United States carried out its nuclear testing between 1946-1952. Reard believed that, in the same way as a nuclear explosion of ’46, the bikini would produce an explosive commercial and cultural reaction.
It did, but this took some time, because the world the world wasn’t ready for a lot of scantily-dressed women. Nowadays, we live in a society where celebrities (or bits of them) regularly fall out of their dresses only to be caught on film by the paparazzi, but there was time when the sight of a woman exposing her arms and legs brought shock to the general public. The desire of women to throw off the shackles of conservative society and maybe even enjoy being more risqué had perhaps been bubbling under the surface for a long time when the bikini appeared, at least in Western societies. Little by little (both figuratively and quite literally) women have pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable wearing, among other types of fashion, increasingly daring swimwear. The fabric shortages of World War II went some way to help the evolution of the bikini, since swimwear manufacturers were under pressure to use less and less material, but Hollywood and the media put the bikini in the spotlight.
Is the bikini a signal of the sexual liberation of women? As women, are we all better off for those famous bikini-clad film stars who dared to shock the world on screen? To a great extent we are, though these days there are definite blurred lines between sexual liberation and empowerment and sexual objectification.
Would our historical female icons be turning in their grave at this trend towards women bearing (almost) all, or would a literary heroine, such as Elizabeth Bennett, be glad to take a dip in the pool in her itsy-bitsy bikini; Darcy watching in delight?