The bikini turns 70 this year. From itsy bitsy beginnings to structured and scaffolded re-imaginings, it’s undergone quite the transformation since it was unveiled in 1946, says Ciara McDonnell.
The bikini, like lots of other great innovations came about as a result of rivalry between two Parisian clothing designers.
In the summer of 1946, Jaques Heim debuted the Atome – the world’s smallest swimsuit.
Boasting ruffly knickers and a good dose of abdomen, this risqué fashion statement immediately had the fashion world in its grips.
That is, until three weeks later, when rival Louis Réard introduced an even smaller swimsuit, naming it the Bikini after Bikini Atoll, the Pacific Ocean site of the first atomic bomb test.
Bragging that a true bikini should be small enough to be pulled through a wedding ring, it was clear that the bikini was here to stay.
The stars of the day were quick to cotton onto the attraction of the bikini. Brigitte Bardot almost caused riots across the south of France as she minced through its beaches in the most revealing bikinis of the time.
Jane Mansfield glamorised it, posing for portraits in bikinis and high heels, and fellow stars Esther Williams and Marilyn Monroe were quick to follow suit. Modern Girl Magazine slammed the swimsuit, writing, “It is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would wear such a thing.”
From its first shocking incarnation, the bikini has navigated the line between scandalous and sexy, at once celebrating a woman’s physique and her sexual prowess.
It is a mark of body confidence that we celebrate today, and from young stars like Taylor Swift and Gigi Hadid to the timeless elegance of Helen Mirren and Cindy Crawford, the bikini is a symbol of star power.
It has re-launched many a career – the scene where Demi Moore struts out of the water in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle has been credited with reviving her sagging career.
So how has the bikini adapted to suit the needs of women over the years? Roslyn Ellis, the Group Buyer of Lingerie, Swimwear and Hosiery at Brown Thomas says that the swimwear has undergone a transformation, but stays true to its roots when it comes to style.
“A lot of designers still take inspiration from the retro archives when it comes to swimwear shapes but they now put a modern twist on it using different fabrications, such as stretch denim or luxury neoprene fabric,” she explains.
“These fabrics are perfect for both adding curves or supporting them. ‘Past Modern’ was a huge trend this year, which demonstrated how classic shapes can be used, but simplified using modern techniques such as laser cut and bonded layers to frame the body.“
As a fashion buyer, Roslyn has access to the top swimwear designers, seasons ahead of what we see on the shelves.
She believes that the enduring appeal of the bikini is in its celebration of the female form.
The key to a successful swimwear, she says, is in the finish and materials used.
“I truly adore brands that use the best fabrics and are specialists in the art of swimwear,” she says.
“These brands will always have the best cuts and finishing, and when you see how these swim pieces work effortlessly with the body, it is hard not to be excited.” While cuts and finishes are essential to a great look, the real success comes from within, according to Ellis.
“I am a big believer in feeling confident in your own body, and not comparing yourself to others. Typically I will always look for brands that are exceptional quality and have detailing to help work with many different shapes.
“The swim designers we carry all have a passion for the beach lifestyle, so know how to design the very best swimwear that is functional, comfortable and effortlessly glamorous.”
Stylist Courtney Smith agrees, encouraging women to find out what suits them and stick to it, rather than trying to emulate celebrities and their impossibly high standards.
“It is a great idea to read magazine articles and trend-led newspaper features about swimwear styles for inspiration,” she explains.
“Try to avoid looking at too many celebrity images, and instead embrace the colours and styles that you love. The boho crotchet styles and summer sporty brights are big swim trends this year.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Courtney herself opts for a simple approach when choosing her own swimwear.
“I tend to avoid overly fussy swimwear with ribbons and cut out details for tanning purposes and usually opt for more simple styles and colours that I can throw fabulous kaftans and kimonos over. “
There is no doubt that swimwear has become much more than just the bikini.
to Roslyn Ellis, it is a capsule collection in its own right.
“I love how swimwear shopping has now evolved to shopping for the holiday wardrobe,” she exclaims.
“Now it’s not just your pool-side bikini but also the sun hat and kaftan to wear to a leisurely lunch or for the evening out where you want to look and feel glamorous but in a relaxed way.”
Swimwear styles have come full circle, says Ellis, with lots of brands embracing the one piece suit this year.
“The one piece swim suit is certainly growing in momentum,” she explains.
“A one-piece suit can be worn to make a serious statement, to be super slimming or have a relaxed and sporty feel. Australian brands like Jets and Seafolly are experts in beach lifestyle so think of every detail such as a clip on the back to ensure no strap marks when tanning but equally for those who are not interested in tanning, Rash vests are also gaining in popularity.”
Choosing the correct swimwear to suit your shape allows women to transcend the terrifying question of ‘how old is too old’?
According to both Ellis and Smith, you are never too old to wear a bikini.
“The key is to invest in good quality so the bikini flatters you, is comfortable and nothing shows through when wet,” reassures Roslyn Ellis.
“Brands like Lazul, Seafolly and Jets cater for all sizes including DD+ cups. Bikini tops with slider detailing mean you can adjust the level of coverage at any time, but are still designed to be neat and not add bulk.
“Bottoms too can be tie side or have slider or folding detail for the same principle. Halter neck tops give great support for larger busts. Equally there are styles with push up detail, or ruching to add curves. The options are endless.”
Knowing what suits you will inform your decision with confidence says Courtney Smith.
“There is such a variety of styles out there and not every single one is going to suit you. Big-busted girls can rarely pull off the strapless bandeau for example, and if you are conscious of your tummy area a string brief will only accentuate any lumps you would prefer to disguise. Also think of colours… if you are naturally pale then those soft sorbet tones will only look good after you get your tan.”
As the woman who defines what Irish women will be wearing on the beaches each season, Roslyn Ellis must have a golden rule when it comes to choosing swimwear?
“There are lots of tips to make certain styles of swimwear suit your shape,” she says.
“To be honest, I truly believe it should be down to personal preference and taste. Make it easy for yourself - consult the expert and get fitted for swimwear as you would lingerie.
“She will work with you - not just your body shape, but also for your lifestyle and personal taste. You will leave feeling comfortable with your purchase and confident in your own shape.”
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