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In the Swim
William Oscar Johnson
February 07, 1989
Through the centuries, swimsuits have gone from the ridiculous to the sublime, with a few strange stops in between
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February 07, 1989

In The Swim

Through the centuries, swimsuits have gone from the ridiculous to the sublime, with a few strange stops in between

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WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Like owners of young thoroughbreds, designer of swimsuits used to search hard and long each year to find new names for almost every model they put on the market, no matter how minor the changes in design might be. In 1954, the reach seemed particularly long for names that would attract customers. That year swimsuits were called Beau Catcher, Double Entendre, Leading Lady, Pretty Foxy, Side Issue, Forecast, Fabulous Fit, Honey Child (designed to maximize small bosoms), Shipshape (designed to minimize large bosoms), Diamond Lil (trimmed with rhinestones and lace), Swimming In Mink (trimmed with fur across the bodice) and Spearfisherman (heavy poplin with a rope belt for carrying a knife to do battle with beasts of the deep).

Perhaps the most provocative name ever coined for a swimsuit was Moonlight Buoy, in 1946. The suit was two pieces of particularly lightweight material—bottom and top together weighed only eight ounces. What made the Moonlight Buoy distinctive was a large cork buckle attached to the the bottoms. If a woman wanted to splash around au naturel, she could tie the top to the cork buckle, which would keep both parts of the suit afloat. LIFE did a photo essay on the Moonlight Buoy and came right out with the naked truth: "The name of the suit, of course, suggests the nocturnal conditions under which nude swimming is most agreeable."

TO BIKINI OR NOT TO BIKINI?

Nothing has made such an impact on human modesty as the bikini. It was designed in 1946 by Louis R�ard, a Frenchman who had trained as a civil engineer before entering his mother's hosiery business in Paris. The name bikini comes from the tiny atoll in the Pacific Ocean that the U.S. pounded to smithereens that same year in a series of atomic tests. R�ard never revealed why he chose the name, leaving swimsuit scholars to ponder whether he had in mind the island's small size, the exotic and revealing garb worn by the women who lived on Bikini before it was bombed or the massive power of an atomic weapon, which, like a woman in a bikini, can devastate everything in its path.

When it was unveiled, the bikini certainly devastated everyone who saw it. No fashion model in Paris would pose in it, so R�ard had to hire a striptease dancer to introduce it. Esther Williams refused to wear one. The bikini was banned in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, and Sears, Roebuck and Co. once airbrushed out the navel of a model who wore one of the tiny suits in its catalog.

The bikini finally caught on in the 1950s on the French Riviera, thanks in large part to Brigitte Bardot, who was frequently photographed there in bikinis. But American women avoided the suit for years. As late as 1959, Anne Cole, a major U.S. swimsuit designer, said, "It's nothing more than a G-string. It's at the razor's edge of decency." In July of the same year, the New York Post launched a search for bikinis on beaches around New York City and found only a couple. Nevertheless, sales had begun to rise in the U.S., and some deep thinkers, noting that the number of private swimming pools in the country had risen from 2,500 in 1949 to 87,000 in 1959, suggested that thousands of otherwise shy women were buying bikinis to wear in the privacy of their home pools.

By the time R�ard died in 1984 at the age of 87, the bikini made up nearly 20% of all swimsuit sales in the U.S.—far more than for any other model.

WATERY WORDS OF WISDOM

Or a few miscellaneous thoughts that have been written and uttered over the years concerning the evolution of the women's swimsuit:

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