The History of the Bikini: Clothing as Evidence of Female Oppression

Written by Isabelle Shaw

Sources of women’s fashion found in ancient history convey a very liberated image of women’s bodies. Clearly, this has been transformed throughout history. In Late Antiquity, women had autonomy over their bodies, but this freedom had been lost up until the early-twentieth century. This can be explained by the impact of the world wars, which revitalised a stagnant feminist movement as women regained power, and innovative new fashion styles which subconsciously influenced politics at the time.  

Early art sources depict Roman women’s fashion. In fourth-century mosaics, such as the Sicilian mosaic at the Villa Romana del Casale, there are images of women in two-pieces like the modern-day bikini. This is also true of Greek urns dating to around 1400 BC, suggesting that in ancient history women’s fashion was liberating and that there were no restrictions over women’s bodies. This pattern continues into the seventh century whereby accounts of costumes similar to swimsuits emerged, but they were made of heavy material, such as canvas that did not cling to the body. Similarly, in 1538, Winmann’s accounts of women in Zurich wearing only ‘drawers’ exemplified that there was a worldwide lack of conservatism surrounding female bodies and that women had agency to wear clothes free from male authority. This represents how early models of society were much more accepting of the personal autonomy of women as we can infer from the representation of clothing in sources. In relation to freedom of expression, men did not attempt to control women by dictating their clothes and women could freely express their bodies away from male conversation. 

In the late-eighteenth century, women started to lift sleeves to the shoulders – revealing more skin – which suggests that women transgressed the male point of view, slowly regaining autonomy and helping lay the foundations for bigger protest movements. Thus, while fashion may appear to be trivial, it is essential to look at the history of fashion in terms of how it inspired women to create broader movements of women’s liberation. This impression evolves as women’s power diminishes over time. The early-nineteenth century is commonly understood to be a period of conservatism as it would have been disreputable for a woman to show skin. Indeed, this period sees the emergence of full-length bathing gowns or dresses in 1848 at summer resorts. It is during this century that we first see resistance to changes to traditional clothing.  Women opted for more masculine style swimsuits, such as trousers and a top. This is evident in an 1868 column in Harper’s Bazaar that critiqued this style as too masculine. This represents how there was a male point of view limiting women’s freedom in relation to personal choice, repressing women through fashion and thus enforcing stagnant patriarchal ideals. 

After the turning point of the First World War, women not only realised the power of freedom of the human body but their own personal responsibility, including their important place in society. This marked the beginning of the changing of the traditional gown into an early version of the bikini. This can be first exemplified when Annette Kellerman wore a one-piece bikini that was tight-fitting, directly leading to her being arrested. This shows how men used the law to repress women’s power in a patriarchal society, even controlling their clothes, and demonstrating how little agency they had in this time period.  After a period of little change, in 1916 modifications were being made to swimsuits by Carl Jantzen in order to improve performance in athletics by making the legs visible so as not to restrict movement. This tells us that at first the swimsuit changed as women had a more prominent role in athleisure and were greater accepted into competitive sports. Thus, there is a correlation between women’s growing power in society and changes to conservative fashion throughout history. 

In the 1930s the midriff first started to appear, and the progress of women’s bodies being accepted was accelerated in the 1940s due to war rationing that forced women to wear simpler clothing. Despite many women wanting liberation of their bodies, there was not a consensus among women about autonomy. This is shown by the fact that the 1957 editorial Modern Girl Magazine wrote “it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing”, revealing long-term deeply ingrained ideals surrounding women’s bodies.  

In 1946 the first form of the bikini was designed by Louis Réard who stitched newspaper together that resembled the modern-day bikini. Jacques Heim’s atom design competed to be a popularised form of the changing shape of swimsuits that became more liberating for women. There is proof that despite resistance, women were prepared to support this design in order to have autonomy over their own body. Despite it being banned in the 1950s Miss World Contest, the designer received 50,000 thank-you notes showing the many women desired personal choice over clothing.  It became further embraced in popular culture when in 1962 Ursula Andress wore a bikini in the Dr No film, creating massive popularity for the bikini, even among men, and showing how the celebration of the female body was becoming a predominant idea overshadowing traditional ideology of the patriarchal society. This modification of swimwear exemplifies how fashion gradually became more and less conservative over time, culminating in the resistance to the ban against bikinis and showing women’s transgressions to popular ideals. 

While the liberation of clothing through the introduction of the bikini inspired a broader feminist movement, it also divided women further as some deemed it unreputable. It would be until modern-day that women were freed from further male oppression over their bodies with a major economical business made from bikinis. Furthermore, we must not forget that adaptations to embrace female sexuality did not just centre around Europe; the G-string originated in Brazil, showing the interculturality which grew due to a want for personal expression. 

Overall, looking at the history of clothing is vital in explaining the nuances behind the growing women’s freedom movements in the twentieth century and provides an insight into views surrounding female oppression and control. The history of the bikini alone gives us the impression of a narrative that started very progressive and did not control women’s bodies to an increasingly more conservative patriarchal society. However, driven by new technology and popular culture, the shape of the bikini became massively popularised quickly, and the fight against resistance gives us an insight into the many ways in which women had to overcome oppression in order to become autonomous beings.  


Bibliography

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Featured image credit: “Vada Bikini”, photograph by Aulo Bernini. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vada_bikini.jpg.

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