Monday, February 25, 2013

Fashion, Culture, Bikinis

Debates about fashion, modesty, and culture are often conducted in the abstract.  I think those debates would go better if we looked at concrete cases.  In evaluating a piece of fashion, why not begin by exploring its history and initial inspirations?  Let's take a test case, a mainstay in American fashion, worn by Christians and non-Christians alike: the bikini.

The bikini was designed by two Frenchmen, Jacques Heim and Louis Reard.  Heim originally designed a suit, called the "atome," which he advertised as the "world's smallest bathing suit."  When the two designers rolled out the new bikini, they advertised it with the following slogan: "Bikini--smaller than the world's smallest bathing suit." They took the name "bikini" from Bikini Atoll, a nuclear test site for the atomic bomb.  The two designers hoped to cause--by splitting the atome bathing suit to create the bikini--the same kind of backlash and unease that splitting the atom in Japan caused throughout the world.

The bikini made its debut in France in 1946.  Heim and Reard, however, could not get any French models to wear it.  So they had prostitutes model the bikini instead.  The suit was heralded by French papers at the time as a liberation from oppressive Christian mores.  American fashion magazines condemned it.  Modern Girl Magazine, as late as 1957, said: "it is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing."  The bikini was banned in a number of Catholic countries, including Spain, Portugal, and Italy, and it was banned in many American states. The National Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization founded by the American bishops, worked hard to prevent the bikini from being featured in Hollywood.  The pope also condemned the 1951 Miss World crowning because Kiki Håkansson was crowned wearing a bikini.

The bikini eventually gained acceptance in the United States with the help of the same magazine features, cinema, and music that marked beginnings of the sexual revolution.  The bikini made an iconic early appearance in the 1962 Bond film, Dr. No.  Film historians say that the display of the bikini in Dr. No was perhaps the "defining moment in the sixties liberalization of screen eroticism" (Martin Rubin).  In the same year, Playboy magazine introduced the first American magazine cover to display a woman in a bikini.  Sports Illustrated followed two years later with an inaugural edition of its bikini-filled issue.  At roughly the same time, a number of songs began to feature the bikini, like Brian Hyland's "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."  These cultural influences, along with a number of popular pin-up girls, launched the bikini into the mainstream.  These influences, however, are identified by historians as some of the key early heralds of the sexual revolution.

The bikini's ascendancy in America, it seems, both helped fuel the sexual revolution of the 60s and was itself made possible by that revolution.  The two movements--one in fashion, the other sexual belief and practice--seem to coincide neatly.  They share the same champions (Bond, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, sexual icons like Marilyn Monroe and Bettie Page, etc.), they share the same enemies (the mid-century Catholic Church, and many mid-Century American Protestants), and they share many of the same pivotal events in their development. History seems unambiguous: the bikini, from its inception in 1946, has served as a symbolic contrast to our "moralistic" Christian past, and as an iconic symbol of our "sexually liberated" present.  Love it or hate it, the bikini is a culturally charged garment.

We can learn a lot by looking at history and origins.  All of this information helps us determine what we're talking about--what a bikini really is, where it comes from, and what it means. Which, in turn, helps us figure out the cultural value of bikinis.

We can use this strategy in any of our reflections on fashion and culture.  Before jumping into vagary-filled debates over broad, sometimes contentless, maxims, we should first examine specific behaviors themselves. Once we understand those specific behaviors, in light of a fully detailed historical, ideological, cultural picture, we can then make up our minds.  Then, we can apply our principles.  Then, we can meaningfully disagree.   

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