Since its inception 70 years ago, the simple bikini has become a summer staple. Fashion’s boldest bikini icons are now household names – just one mention of a 70s white two-piece and an image of Ursula Andress in Dr No is instantly conjured. Forget Brian Hyland and his teeny weeny polka-dot number; instead, think Bardot frolicking on the Cannes shoreline, or Monroe posing in a full face of make-up.
The itsy bitsy bikini: early beginnings
Although the earliest examples can be found in the Greco-Roman era, where surviving artworks show female athletes in minimal two-piece clothing, it was in the summer of 1946 that the modern bikini caught the public's attention. Controversially, the swimwear design cannot be credited to just one person. Furrier Jacques Heim debuted the world's smallest swimsuit (‘The Atome’) shortly before Parisian engineer, Louis Réard, stole his thunder with the ‘Bikini Atoll’. Named after an area in the Pacific Ocean that had just been part of nuclear weapons testing by the USA, Réard hoped his design would create a similarly “explosive commercial and cultural reaction”.
This early bikini was so scandalous that Réard could only hire Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer, to model it. However, despite the shocking amount of skin it exposed, this string bikini quickly became a hit amongst Hollywood’s young stars. Swimmer and actress Esther Williams showcased some of the best bikini looks of the era: plunging necklines, skirted bottoms and bandeau tops were replicated for the public by costume designers like Margit Fellegi for Cole of California. This is a look that Missoni beachwear uses as inspiration time after time. But it was an 18-year-old Brigitte Bardot in 1953 who became one of fashion’s boldest bikini icons – her floral print bandeau number put the then-risqué two-piece (and its wearer) on the map.
Golden girls: the rise of the bikini in Hollywood
Once Bardot brought the bikini to the world’s attention, American stars like Rita Hayworth, Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe followed suit. Perfect for the pin-up era, high-waisted styles were frequently seen on Hollywood’s most stylish actresses — many of whom were featured in advertisements to increase the bikini’s popularity. This sumptuous silhouette continues to be a favourite among contemporary designers: for their 2016 summer collections, labels like Fleur du Mal and Blue Man exhibited high-cut bikini bottoms and balconette tops reminiscent of the early ‘60s designs.
Raquel Welch became one of the most famous bikini style icons after her appearance in One Million Years B.C. in 1966. The legendary deer skin two-piece has been cited as a “definitive look of the ‘60s” and continues to show its influence today: in 2011, Time listed it in their ‘Top Ten Bikinis in Pop Culture’. From here on out, the bikini became a must-have summer item. From towelling versions to crochet styles, the two-piece was replicated in a number of fabrics. YSL brought the bikini to the catwalk in the early 70s with ruffles and embroidery – a design that was imitated by Lisa Marie Fernandez bikinis for SS16.
Modern muses: Bond & beyond
When Ursula Andress, arguably the most renowned of bikini icon, emerged from the sea as Honey Rider in the 1962 James Bond film, she had 007 and the world in awe of her. The delicate cream bikini, paired with her stunning Swiss complexion and athletic physique, have kept her at the top of every swimwear style icon list since. And thus, the Bond girl was born. A little over a decade later, Britt Ekland starred as Mary Goodnight in The Man With The Golden Gun, and wowed in her own colourful bikini. The SS16 season saw Brazilian label Brigitte take inspiration from Ekland’s psychedelic style two-piece, with dainty string Brigitte bikinis in eye-catching hues.
In 2002, Halle Berry channelled Andress in Die Another Day with an orange bikini by Eres. Almost 40 years after the original, this minimalist design revealed that some of the best bikini looks are the most simple — as long as you have a handy weapon as an accessory. Away from the big screen, pop culture is still referencing past bikini fashions: all three members of Destiny’s Child paid homage to Welch by donning fur two-pieces in their 2001 Survivor music video. Despite the decades passed since the 60s siren wore the fur, the group still faced criticism for their risqué outfits, proving that not everything changes in the world of fashion.
Since the first design in 1946, the scant two-piece has been helping its wearers make headlines and icons out of themselves. In 2016, Kendall Jenner released her own line of athleisure-inspired bikinis, and we’re eagerly awaiting further news of the Rachel Roy/Melissa Obadash swimwear collaboration. Despite its 70-year run, the humble bikini creates waves of new swimwear style icons each season, and we look forward to witnessing the new ones while celebrating the old.