The girlie bikini has reached a milestone.
She's hit the Big 5-0 this year, the very birthday that many consider to be the start of some cosmic downward spiral, but which has apparently done nothing to tarnish this gal's hotsy-totsy status.
Once thought to be too risque to be worn on American beaches and later considered proper attire only for "easy girls," the birthday bikini has since earned a place in the hearts of many, from those who can no longer wiggle their way into one to others -- mostly men -- who admire them from afar.
The way the great bikini story goes, a French designer named Louis Reard revealed it to a morally devastated audience at a Paris fashion show July 5, 1946. The skimpy swimwear caused such a stir that models refused to wear it, forcing Reard to hire a stripper to show it off.
Truth be told, fashion historians and a few vague references in fashion books show that similar styles had been created years earlier. Reard was just better at promoting his product.
For starters, he gave it a name -- something previous designers had apparently failed to do.
It was reportedly first called "le atom," but Reard later chose the more catchy "bikini." While Reard never 'fessed up about his reasons for choosing that name, it was likely related to the atomic-bomb tests taking place that year at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific.
Although early fallout over the bikini was huge, the scanty suit caught on in France over the next several years.
Uncle Sam, however, wasn't about to give it his thumbs up. In fact, Americans were so against such provocative apparel that women crass enough to wear it were arrested for indecent exposure.
"Even when it did catch on in America, it tended to be larger," said Valerie Steele, a fashion historian who teaches at the Fashion Institute in New York.
"The belly button wasn't exposed, which really is the key to a real bikini."
Still, the more chaste American model was a hit in the Kennedy years.
The bikini was glorified in song ("Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini") and dozens of beach-blanket movies, such as "Bikini Beach" starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in 1964.
"This is just not just a fashion story," said Richard Martin, director of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
"It's really about how people regarded sexuality."
The trend in sexual freedom that the bikini helped spawn actually made it increasingly unimpressive and almost cliched, though designers struggled to update it.
In the '60s they experimented with all sorts of plastic decorations, such as big flowers and hooks.
(Men also joined the ranks of the bikini-clad, although the male version was again more popular in France and actually looked more like tight-fitting boxers.)
Around this time, too, designer Rudi Gernreich -- who created the thong bikini in 1974 -- made huge waves with his topless bathing suit for women.
As outraged as some people were with that creation, about 3,000 of them were sold, fashion historians said, probably more as lingerie than as actual beach attire.
The 1980s were a time for comfort, when designers created styles to accommodate the exercise trend, and the 1990s offer lots of choices and a focus on individualism, from wild-animal prints and sheers to Marilyn Monroe hipsters and lingerie-like suits.
It may be, as fashion historians suggest, that while the itsy-bitsy numbers from the 1960s and '70s represented sexual freedom, today's often more conservative swimwear is more about safe sex and ultraviolet radiation.
Still, the bikini lives on.
In 1995, about a third of the 52 million swimsuits sold for women age 14 and over were two-piece. Swimwear manufacturers said those numbers have remained consistent over the past five years.
"It just doesn't dip in popularity," said D. J. Wood, a creator of the Bikini Online Magazine (online address: http: //www.bikinionline.com).
"It has never-ending sex appeal," Wood said.
Pub Date: 6/20/96