23.12.2016

Bikini is synonymous with holidays and freedom


1934: Having fun in the floods of the Swakop River. (Photo: W. Groenewald)

Sun lovers at the beach in Swakopmund in the 1980s. (Photo: Michaela Schroeter)

Two topics were heatedly discussed in the summer of 1946. On June 30th a nuclear bomb exploded in the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. It was the first in an American test series that continued for twelve year. Five days after the first explosion a Frenchman by the name of Louis Réard caused similar shock waves in a figurative manner of speaking. At the elegant Piscine Molitor complex, the most popular public pool in Paris, nude dancer Micheline Bernadini took to the catwalk flaunting his latest fashion creation – a bikini.  

While massive destruction was caused in the bikini Atoll through the sudden release of energy as a result of nuclear fission, Réard – who was neither a couturier nor a fashion mogul, but a mechanical engineer by profession – did something similar, if you want to look at it in a cynical way. He took a bathing costume and by ‘fission’ instantly raised sex bomb alarm.  

The two-piece wasn’t invented by Réard, though. Only the name was new. Greek vases dating back to 500 BC and ancient murals from 400 AC show women wearing a two-piece. But the moral code of 19th century Europe required the female body to be covered up. Women were fully dressed, even wearing a hat and boots, when they went ‘bathing’. 

In 1907 professional Australian swimmer and film actress Annette Kellermann caused a ‘swimsuit scandal’ in the United States when she appeared in one of her fitted one-piece costumes at a beach in Massachusetts. The offensive garment resembled a leotard combined with leggings and the actress was promptly arrested for indecency. The media went on about it for weeks. Which was just as well. Clothing regulations were eased over the years until the two-piece suddenly showed a flash of skin at the waist. That was no coincidence: in the exemplary thirties the ideal of beauty started to change in a remarkable way. Pale skin was out, suntanned bodies were in. Ultimately the Second World War saw to it that less fabric was used for bathing costumes. Everything was in short supply. 

While nuclear bombs were detonated in the Bikini Atoll, supposedly for the good of mankind, and the crazy arms race between the USA and the Soviet Union heated up the Cold War, Réard’s four small triangles were given the cold shoulder for the time being. 

Bikini versus Bikini. Excessive armament against moral indignation. 

“The bikini is so small that it reveals everything except for the maiden name of the wearer’s mother”, Réard is quoted as having said. A shameless provocation!  

Bikini, previously an island paradise, was sent to hell… après moi, le deluge. The scrap of cloth called a bikini, however, was not only seen as unrefined but also as extremely incorrect politically. The 167 inhabitants of the Bikini Atoll, who had no choice but to relocate, were not allowed to return home. And far away in the northern hemisphere bikinis were banned from the beaches. The two-piece swimsuit showed the navel! That was much too erotic and therefore taboo. Altercations because of a bit of fabric while in the course of twelve years 23 nuclear bombs were detonated in the Bikini Atoll on land, in the ocean and in the air.     

The fact that the bikini nevertheless became a success was due to three prominent ladies. In 1951 Marylin Monroe posed in a bikini. The bottom part was still so large that it resembled the shortest miniskirt worn in our day. Brigitte Bardot had her memorable moment at the Cannes Film Festival in 1952. A commentator apparently described it like this: “A tall blonde in a fur coat got out of the car and purposefully walked into the foyer. There she dropped the coat.“

One, two, three, four, tell the people what she wore….

“She wore nothing but a teeny weeny blue and white bikini. The photographers were stunned”, the commentator said.

Two, three, four, stick around we'll tell you more….

By contrast, ladies in what was then called South West Africa weren’t that keen on baring their bodies yet. Not in public, that is. Even though the song Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini made it to the top of the charts and the country’s hot climate certainly favoured the daring bathing costume, they rather wrapped up in Karakul coats. At least that is the impression gained from advertisements in SWA Yearbooks – elegant ladies in Karakul, buttoned up to the neck.

Fast forward to 1962 when Ursula Andress aka agent Honey Ryder emerged from turquoise Caribbean waters in a white bikini, sporting a broad belt and large diving knife, to entice James Bond (Sean Connery) in Dr. No, the first 007 movie. This scene boosted bikini sales like never before. But just a few years later a different shape was required for the female body. Fanus Rautenbach, well-known South African radio personality of the 1970s, famously described the ever shrinking sweet nothing of a garment as ‘here a little, wait a little, still a little’ (hier ‘n bietjie, wag ‘n bietjie, nog ‘n bietjie) on air. Curves were out, the time of Miss Twiggy had arrived. And the hippie culture. Women with well-shaped breasts, a small waist and long slender legs – or as thin as a rake – wore their bikini under colourful billowing batik robes when they casually made their appearance at the beach, Jesus sandals on their feet.

Also in the 1980s the bikini was synonymous with holidays and freedom, though in Apartheid Namibia and South Africa only for those with a white skin. Those with a ‘natural tan’ were still banned from public swimming pools and the beach at the Mole (breakwater) in Swakopmund until Namibia gained independence in 1990.   

Nevertheless the bikini makes a hot comeback year after year. Each summer season has its own new range of tailor-made scrap of cloth beachwear which shows off the female figure. And as bikini-clad women twist and turn for an even, almost full-body tan, the wheels are turning as well. In Namibia, Meriam Kaxuxwena is making a name for herself. The dark-skinned fashion conscious beauty with the gorgeous figure is not only Namibia’s no. 1 catwalk model, but she also won the 2014 World Bikini Model International in China and outshone 48 competitors for the best complexion title. She became Supermodel Africa 2015 and has started to design her own range of bikinis and swimwear.       

Kirsten Kraft


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