Although it wasn't formally banned in America, the bikini didn't appear on our puritanical shores until around 1960. A popular song that year, "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," illustrated the naughty way the suit was perceived. It described the protagonist as 'afraid to come out of the water' lest she risk embarrassing herself by overexposure. A gossipy chorus encouraged the scandal by chanting, "One, two, three, four... tell the people what she wore!"
But by the mid-60's, the bikini had become de rigueur for those with the figure to carry it off - and for many without it. The suit also became the raison d'etre of the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach-party movies such as How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. Although the slightly zaftig Annette (a former Disney Mouseketeer) never actually wore a bikini in any of these films - she being the more morally upright female protagonist - there were more than enough other barely-concealed beauties to please any males in the audience.
So how to possibly top the bikini? By un-topping it. In 1964, swimsuit designer Rudi Geinreich unveiled the topless swimsuit, scandalizing America by featuring a model wearing it in full-frontal glory in a major U. S. news magazine. The suit never caught on; Americans were not ready or willing to bare this much (or, at least, local nudity ordinances were not). In the meantime, over on the French Riviera, women decided to take a similar matter into their own hands. Rather than buy topless bathing suits, they started wearing monokinis: bikini bottoms without the tops. Quel concept!
Between the 1970's and the present day, changes in swimwear have been more evolutionary than revolutionary. Fabrics got better; lycra became ubiquitous. Figure illusion and manipulation became a studied science in the swimsuit industry. Bikinis got as small as they could possibly get. Two-piece 'baby-doll' suits, consisting of overblouse tops and bikini bottoms, enjoyed a brief moment or two in 1969-1970. Soft-constructed, one-piece suits - or maillots - became a standard starting in the early 70's, and have become a mainstay ever since. A diverse assortment of accessories, cover-ups, and coordinates made swimwear more acceptable for casual activities beyond swimming. The industry experimented with suits that people could tan through, before tanning fell out of fashion again in the late 1980's.
Bareness took on new frontiers, as well, by bringing up the - um - rear: in the mid-1980's, 'French cut' swimsuits hoisted leg openings about as high on the hips as they could go. And in 1977, thongs, originally called tangas, hit the beaches of Brazil, and still scandalize certain parts of the world by exposing practically all of one's hind end.
Still, pound for pound, the bikini - like the atomic weapons mentioned earlier - carries the biggest visual wallop available. Not as naughty as nudity, but friendlier than lingerie, bikinis will hopefully continue to grace the beaches, poolsides, and magazine covers as long as there are nubile young women to wear them. And God bless them for doing so.
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