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The Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Atomic Bikini

The Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Atomic Bikini

It was an itsy bitsy, teenie weenie, yellow polka dot bikini… 

This catchy tune by Brian Hyland is as much a part of the summertime for many of us as ice cream and sweating off our eyebrow gel. Despite years of singing this song on my way to the pool, it was only once I began researching the bikini’s origins (indoors and in the winter) that I found the multiple links between this popular swimsuit style and mid-20th century military developments.

Made from four pieces of material, for such a small garment the bikini caused more than its share of controversy when it was first introduced into mainstream Western culture in 1946. It was invented by designer Louis Réard and found its namesake in the island of Bikini Atoll where atomic bomb testing took place that same year. [1] As a fashion trend, the bikini’s earliest associations were to concepts of war and weaponry.

Part of the suit’s ability to convey a kind of “shock power” was found in its miniscule design: “Unlike its two piece counterparts, first seen on beaches in the late 1920s and 1930s, which exposed only a small section of midriff, the bikini bared a number of erogenous zones— the back, upper thigh, and for the first time, the navel— all at once.” [2] Baring the wearer’s abdomen in particular separated the bikini as an astonishing fashion trend. However, despite the fanfare that surrounded the bikini’s introduction, the new swimsuit style was not the first time navel-baring outfits had been introduced into culture; “harem” costume and some vaudeville performance costumes provide examples of this. [3] Importantly, this highlights that the bikini was not only a Western style first worn in the 1940s. My research, however, focused on the bikini’s history from 1946 up until 2016 in Western culture; in particular I explored and synthesized existing academic works on the bikini and other relevant materials. [4] My aim was to understand the bikini’s success and longevity as it was shaped by war and military events within this context.


World War II: The Aftermath

It was in the first year following World War II’s end that the precursor to the bikini, the atome, and the bikini itself, were created. Part of the bikini’s success as a fashion trend can be found in its timing, coinciding with the development of elastomeric synthetic textiles; Lastex, nylon and LYCRA® were invented between the late 1930s and late 1950s, allowing swimsuits to be created in more innovative and wearable designs, patterns and cuts. [5]

Although the bikini was, on the surface, a highly minimalistic fashion trend, to wear a bikini involved the over consumption of leisure, of media, and even of sexuality. [6] The conspicuous consumption of leisure and travel in particular helped to facilitate the sense of escape and recovery surrounding the swimsuit style. [7] The bikini was also a fun way to surprise and invigorate a society recovering from war, as Americans and Europeans wanted to escape a reality that had already been far too harsh and allow themselves to fantasize. [8]

An example from Vogue magazine helps to highlight this. When discussing what to pack for a trip in 1949, three years after the bikini’s release, the magazine recommended that “everything you own should be able to travel, for a good wardrobe is a good wardrobe the world over.” [9] The bikini, because of how small it was, was a modern trend that could easily be tied to the appeal of a quick getaway. This was especially enticing immediately post-war, when the need to escape had been on the mind of the world. Vogue then suggests packing “Your white nylon bathing suit, as smart at Antibes (unless you fall for a “Bikini” as at Southampton”). [10] The bikini was meant to be worn in an environment that had both heat and water, linking the garment to travel and wealth. That the bikini was already featured in Vogue, only three years after its creation, highlights its growing popularity; and yet Vogue’s choice of words, where the wearer “falls” for a bikini, illustrates that it was still seen as a controversial, or even dangerous, fashion trend. [11] Despite this, by the summer after its creation Harper’s Bazaar would have already featured a model in a bikini in its May issue. [12]


The Atomic Bomb

Though World War II had ended, fear of future wars remained. As Ruth Levy Guyer explains in her article “Radioactivity and Rights: Clashes at Bikini Atoll,” “The United States took control of Bikini and the rest of the Marshall Islands during World War II. Immediately after the war, the United States selected Bikini Atoll as the ideal spot for continuing its bomb tests.” [13] The bikini’s namesake remained in the public eye as a spot for nuclear testing, continuing in the mid-1940s up until 1958. [14]

Interestingly, the bikini and its precursor, the atome, created by French designer Jacques Heim, were released to the public by their designers within weeks of one another. [15] Heim called the atome swimsuit “the world's smallest bathing suit.” [16] The bikini was then fittingly advertised as “Bikini, smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world.” [17] The race between the two designers to create the smallest and most shocking bathing suit possible mirrors the impending arms race between Russia and the U.S. Réard’s bikini, outside of its smaller size, was made out of material that looked like newspaper print. [18] In crafting the suit in this way, Réard's bikini brought to mind newspaper headlines which had showcased news about war and the atomic bomb. It is also a wink at the conspicuous consumption of these media outlets in the era. [19]

The bikini and the atomic bomb were seemingly endlessly linked in popular culture.

The atomic bomb continued to seize the minds of society, likely in a mix of fascination and fear: “It was almost as if a sort of madness had taken over, in which everything was somehow linked with the bomb and its explosive power,” writes Patrik Alac in The Bikini: A Cultural History. [20] Réard likely hoped that the bikini would have just as explosive an impact on the culture. It appears that his gamble paid off; outside of the fact that we still wear bikinis today, Diana Vreeland called it the most important invention since the atomic bomb. [21] The bikini and the atomic bomb were seemingly endlessly linked in popular culture. In Vreeland’s statement, the bikini almost serves as a stand-in for the atomic bomb, replacing a dangerous, military weapon with the benign bathing suit. The bikini was just shocking enough to be compared to weaponry, but still safe enough to be a pleasant distraction.


The Cold War

The Cold War continued to shape the bikini as a fashion trend and wardrobe staple. I follow Jane Pavitt’s book, Fear and Fashion: In the Cold War, in discussing the Cold War from 1945-1970. [22] As Pavitt explains, anxiety surrounding a looming war impacted many of the products and creations which came out of this time period, including the bikini. [23] As well, the quickening pace in the realms of war and science was mirrored through rapid developments in the fashion industry, impacting new trends like the bikini, as well as scientific advancements in technologies affecting the body and its maintenance. [24]

Like other new inventions, fashion developments came at a cost: looking good in a bikini was extremely restrictive and involved new routines for the wearer —  like dieting. [25] The bikini, shaped and popularized in part by the Cold War, assisted in creating higher expectations of beauty, self-care and self-control for women. The need to be the best and most successful persisted throughout Western society, and can be seen as a response to the sense of competition which was implicit in the rhetoric of the Cold War. Despite this, the bikini can also be understood as a reflection of the growing need for freedom in the Western world, set in direct opposition to communism.

In particular, the bikini was affected by the emerging fight for sexual freedom in Western culture at this time. The ability to wear the swimsuit style was important to some women; an article from June 1950 in The Globe and Mail declared that “20 near-nude bathing beauties will march on the Borough of Westminster unless the London County Council removes a ban on ‘Bikini’ swimsuits.” [26] Quotations were used around the word “bikini,” illustrating that it was not an entirely normalized garment. In the same article, the bikini is also referred to as “The Bikini (blown-to-a-shred) bathing suit,” further illustrating the garment’s continuous link to warfare. [27] Western women’s thirst for freedom during the Cold War may indeed have contributed to the bikini’s success as a popular fashion trend.

 Researchers seem to agree that it was around these decades that the bikini began to shift from a controversial trend towards becoming an accepted part of women’s wardrobes, and “swimsuit historians consistently jump to the 1960s as the decade in which the bikini gained social acceptance, a result of the youth revolution that equated nudity with liberalism.” [28] During the Cold War, the trend of liberalism in opposition to communism seemed to continue. Along with the invention of the birth control pill in the 1960s, Sports Illustrated also featured a bikini on its cover for the first time that year. [29] “It was the jet age, and it was hard not to have a bikini”; technological advancements during the Cold War were being linked to a desire for freedom, innovation and independence in fields ranging from world politics to fashion. [30] 

Western women’s thirst for freedom during the Cold War may indeed have contributed to the bikini’s success as a popular fashion trend.

The end of the Cold War brought about the legitimization of the bikini from fashion trend to wardrobe staple. The breaking of the Berlin Wall impacted many Western values, mirrored by the acceptance of the bikini and it no longer being considered amoral. [31] It is possible that a society that had already been so deeply shocked by the Cold War could no longer be amazed or scandalized by a fashion trend like the bikini. As well, along with a sense of safety from the end of war may have come an emboldened sense that liberation and sexual freedom had finally been realized. Women chose to keep the bikini in their wardrobes, but were no longer so capable of shocking polite society by doing so.


The 21st Century Bikini

While currently the bikini is not without controversy, as a garment it is typically seen as a mundane form of beach and swimwear and is a staple piece in many summer wardrobes. Like the shadow of past wars, the bikini’s controversial origins seem to have been forgotten; at least, some of the time. It is easy to assume that understanding the bikini as it relates to political and military events is no longer relevant.

However, the bikini can still cause controversy: for example, when the bikini was chosen as the uniform for the Olympic sport of beach volleyball in 1996. [32] That the bikini can be used as an Olympic uniform highlights its normalized status. Nevertheless, “one of the only sports where athletes are instructed to wear a uniform that does not exceed a certain size, beach volleyball’s mandatory dress code has received criticism as overly sexual and a ploy to increase viewers and gain sponsors.” [33] In this case, it seems that the bikini has come full circle. First, it was criticized for being too overtly revealing and shocking. While it is now generally acceptable to wear a bikini, having one as an enforced uniform has changed its perception from liberating to inhibiting for those female athletes.

From 1946-2016, the bikini, outside of simply reflecting fashion trends, has been heavily shaped by military developments. Analyzing the bikini through the lens of war and military can help us to understand more generally how the impact of current political events can shape today’s fashion trends. Created during the aftermath of the Second World War, finding its namesake in the atomic bomb and seeing its perception transition from a scandalizing trend to a classic garment throughout the Cold War and its end, the bikini finally found its place as a normalized piece of swim and athletic wear in the 21st century; with, of course, some notable exceptions. Today, Western society seems to have even forgotten what events originally inspired the popular swimsuit’s name.



 [1] Tiffany Webber-Hanchett, “Bikini,” in The Berg Companion to Fashion, ed. Valerie Steele (Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010), par. 1,

[2] Webber-Hanchett, “Bikini,” par. 3.

[3] Kelly Killoren Bensimon, The Bikini Book (London: Thames & Hudson, 2006), 22.

[4] Thornstein Veblen, “Chapter 4: Conspicuous Consumption,” in The Theory of the Leisure

Class (2008), 22-23; Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in the Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. the Knowledge Policy, The Eltan Burgos School of Economics (1986), 241-258; “Fernand Braudel,” in Encyclopedia of World Biography (Detroit: Gale, 2004),; Elizabeth Semmelhack, “Lecture 1: Course Overview” (lecture, Theory/History Seminar I, Ryerson University, Toronto, ON, Sept. 6, 2017); Elizabeth Semmelhack, “Lecture 2: Foundational Texts” (lecture, Theory/History Seminar I, Ryerson University, Toronto, ON, Sept. 13, 2017).

[5] Bensimon, The Bikini Book, 162.

[6] Veblen, “Chapter 4: Conspicuous Consumption,” 22-23.

[7] Veblen, “Chapter 4: Conspicuous Consumption,” 22-23.

[8] Bensimon, The Bikini Book, 281.

[9] “Lines to a Traveller,” Vogue, 15 May 1949, 41,

[10] “Lines to a Traveller,” 41.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Webber-Hanchett, “Bikini,” par. 2.

[13] Ruth Levy Guyer, “Radioactivity and Rights: Clashes at Bikini Atoll,” Am J Public Health

91, no. 9 (2001): par. 3,

[14] Guyer, “Radioactivity and Rights: Clashes at Bikini Atoll,” par. 13.

[15] Thomas G. Cole II, “(The) bikini: embodying the bomb,” Genders 53 (201): par. 8,|A254403943&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon&authCount=1.

[16] Cole, “(The) bikini: embodying the bomb,” par. 8.

[17] Bensimon, The Bikini Book, 18.

[18] Bensimon, The Bikini Book, 26.

[19] Veblen, “Chapter 4: Conspicuous Consumption,” 22-23.

[20] Patrik Alac, The Bikini: A Cultural History (New York: Parkstone Press Ltd, 2001), 28.

 [21] Webber-Hanchett, “Bikini,” par. 2.

[22] Jane Pavitt, book jacket of Fear and Fashion in the Cold War (London: V&A Publishing, 2008).

 [23] Pavitt, Fear and Fashion in the Cold War, 8.

[24] Ibid, 10.

[25] Cole, “(The) bikini: embodying the bomb,” par. 4.

[26] “20 Lady Godivas Plan March to Protest Bathing Suit Rules,” The Globe and Mail, 21 June

1950, 15,

[27] “20 Lady Godivas Plan March to Protest Bathing Suit Rules,” 15.

[28] Christine Schmidt, The Swimsuit: Fashion From Poolside to Catwalk (London: Berg, 2012)

par. 20, DOI: 10.2752/9781474280051/Schmidt0003.

[29] Bensimon, The Bikini Book, 144.

[30] Bensimon, The Bikini Book, 253.

[31] Alac, The Bikini: A Cultural History, 176.

[32] Bensimon, The Bikini Book , 310.

[33] Bensimon, The Bikini Book, 310.

Smuggled in the Bustle

Smuggled in the Bustle