Bikinis, named after the atoll on which nuclear weapons were tested in from 1946 to 1958, are the result of our longing to have as near an all-over tan as decency will allow. Even when Clifford Coffin took this picture in 1949, modesty in bathing costumes was becoming obsolete. This would have puzzled the designer who was said to have “invented the 20th century for women”: for Coco Chanel, a swimming costume was one piece and, if two, never showed more than a small area of upper midriff.
She would not have understood the thongs and minuscule bras on today’s beaches. But then, when Chanel was designing swimwear on the French Riviera in the 1920s, the sun was not so fully embraced. In fact, many people followed the tradition set by the British and northern Europeans of visiting the south of France only in the winter, leaving the summer glare to the natives. In Chanel’s time, women did not expose themselves, and wanted little more from a day on the sands than a glow.
This changed when the Americans discovered the Mediterranean and the idea of broiling in the sun. By the 1930s, this approach had reached its logical conclusion: if you believe in getting a tan, you want it to be over the maximum body area. Now, despite repeated cancer scares, we all think we look sexier the browner we get. And that’s the difference.
So why would Chanel be puzzled? Well, this shift in attitude towards the beach reflects a shift in attitude towards life in general. The women Chanel dressed avoided overt sexuality as something vulgar. They preferred to play a more subtle, teasing game. Modern women are much more honest. They accept and acknowledge the importance of sex in their lives, and they know that a well-toned, fabulously bronzed body can help to achieve it.
(First published July 2004)
1.Clifford Coffin, Unknown models, Guigno, 1949
2.Clifford Coffin, Vogue, 1940's/50's