Essay: Celebrating Summer Memories With the Bikini’s Anniversary This Month

Illustration by Rachel Idzerda

The bikini turns 75 on July 5—officially recognized as National Bikini Day—just a few months before I’ll open birthday cards that feature bad jokes about turning 70.

The ubiquitous style, not unlike the garb worn for exercise in Ancient Rome and as early as 5600 B.C., made its grand entrance in 1946 at a swimming pool in Paris. French auto engineer Louis Réard designed it and named it, inspired by the nuclear bomb tests in Bikini Atoll, certain that his invention would be equally explosive. Lest his brainchild be confused with any variations, he defined the authentic bikini as little enough material “to be pulled through a wedding ring.”

Although by 1968 I was parading around the house and baring body at the beach in a modest version, my Catholic mother still gasped the night we saw Goldie Hawn dancing in hers on “Laugh-In.” “Scandalous,” Mama critiqued, since the Pope had declared the garment “sinful.”

Although mine was not technically a bikini, for me, it was a rite of passage. My first elective departure from the nautical-themed red, white, and navy single-piece bathing costumes my mother would select for me was this high-waisted, baby-blue gingham bottom with white eyelet trimming the top half—a “Little House on the Prairie” attempt at more risqué. I settled for that iteration until the combination of swimming in saltwater and perching on Balboa Island’s concrete seawall all but erased the checkered design from its seat. An update was required, and I looked forward to taking it to the next level.

Together my girlfriends and I dedicated long hours during early spring behind curtain-drawn Balboa Island and Laguna Beach dressing rooms, searching for the perfect fit and print that screamed “summer!” The matching coverup was key, though hardly ever used.

Until school dismissal in June, creating a base for the upcoming seasonal tan by spending every spare moment bagging rays was essential. Ours was a painstaking process that precluded anything other than the bare minimum homework assignment; it required full concentration, a wide assortment of sun-attractant products, and precise timing to avoid the burn while building the bronze.

By the time I turned 19, the fashion had further evolved, replacing shoulder straps with a mere string to be tied around the neck.  I fancied myself in love at the time, so naturally I sought out the most romantic swimming outfit. John was an avid body surfer who taught me how to navigate the waves sans rubber raft. His mother snapped a photograph of us hand in hand on the sand—there we stood in the shimmering sunshine, tall and tan and young and lovely, I in my new brilliant yellow bikini.

It all came crashing down, however, the afternoon I realized he was not, after all, the one with whom I would share endless summers. We were barreling a tube ride at Newport Beach when a spectacularly aggressive shore break ripped away the skinny string securing the two skimpy triangles that formed my top. As it washed ashore while I lay face down gargling salt water between earnest pleas for rescue, he teasingly hesitated to return it to me. Very funny.

Like Brian Hyland sang about the girl in the 1960 hit song featuring the itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini, I was “afraid to come out of the water.” It was my boyfriend’s chivalrous best friend who took pity, scooped up the essential habiliment, skillfully fought the formidable current until up to his shoulders in white water, and on tiptoe and at arm’s length, tossed it to me; he’s the one I should have been dating.

Hence, I learned the hard way that fastening a double knot at the nape and across the back was vital.

In the 1980s, when my friends and I were first pregnant, tank-inis usurped the former scant swatches of fabric we’d worn—although women today prance around in the teeniest ever, even in the third trimester. More power to them, I say! This is as it should be.

While sorting through some old family photos, I came across a 1958 snapshot of my cousin wearing a black swimsuit like the one designed in 1932 by the Frenchman Jacques Heim, the bathing apparel he named “The Atome.” Heim’s waistband never would have slipped through a wedding ring; it covered the navel, and the top provided enough coverage to double for a formidable sports bra. Ruffles were often involved.

“We thought that was a bikini!” someone commented during the family quarantine Zoom gathering after I held the photo up to the screen. “Little did we know,” added my cousin, “how low they would go—and how high!”

Today, the sky’s the limit.  Style is no longer the tyrant it was when I was a girl. Trikini, skirtini, bandeaukini, or highwaistkini—there’s no pressure to drift along in some trend-fickle tide! If you desire a more practical application, designer Andrew Schneider created just the thing in 2006—a solar-
paneled bikini with USB sockets that can charge your devices while you tan.

Meanwhile, I raise a glass to the enduring and classic pioneer as it celebrates 75 years. Brutally deprived of a proper 2020 summer celebration, the bikini readies to reemerge in all its glory for a momentous 2021 birthday. Ageless and timeless, it has managed to maintain its rank among a sea of suits.

Although recently my preference has been for maximum coverage, when I turn 80, who knows? I might decide to relive that 20th golden summer. I’ll hit the surf in a little something yellow and petite … and polka-dotted.

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