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Bikini 60 years old and still turning heads

BEACH ICON
BEACH ICON
That thong bikini bottom and barely-there top may raise eyebrows among onlookers at the local pool, but it took a lot less bare skin to turn heads 60 years ago.

The first time Amy Hardwick, 52, sported a bikini as a 15-year-old in the late 1960s, it took her father mere seconds to express shock at his daughter's newest piece of swimwear.

"I went in the yard to lay out and I heard, 'AMY SUE!'" the Virginia woman recalled, laughing. "And my dad was standing there."  By today's standards, Hardwick wouldn't call that particular swimsuit a bikini, as its high waist and full back offered more coverage than what many teen girls wear to school these days, she said. But back then, showing even a glimpse of bare midriff was considered scandalous - at least among the older generation.
Hardwick, who was relaxing by the wave pool at Knight's Action Park in Springfield, Ill., with friends Teri McMinn, 42, of Jacksonville, Ill., and Lori Cook, 38, of Virginia, has since traded in her two-piece for a sensible black-and-white one-piece.

With the "anything goes" attitude regarding swimwear in recent years, the friends said they were thankful they didn't see anyone at the park in a thong.

"I don't think anybody should wear those," McMinn said. "Nobody wants to see your naked butt."

This summer marks the bikini's 60th anniversary since two Frenchmen introduced two versions nearly simultaneously in 1946. The style reached U.S. stores a year later, but took almost 20 years to gain nationwide acceptance.

Americans are slow to accept risque trends, fashion experts say, and the bikini was no exception, despite its humble beginnings.

"(The first bikinis) were actually fairly modest," said Julianne Trautmann, an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Illinois State University. "If you take a look at the bikini, probably the first ones were more of a halter-style top with fairly full coverage, and almost a boy-briefs bottom. ... We're not talking a huge expanse of the midriff."

Still too much for conservative Americans to accept, bikini sales crawled for decades despite bombshell pinups like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot sporting the two-piece on film.

It wasn't until the 1970s that sun seekers fully embraced the bikini. By then, the garment's fabric content had whittled from its modest beginnings to the itsy-bitsy string bikini. It since has evolved to include several designs that flatter many body types.

The two-piece, however, is much older than its 60-year status as the bikini, Trautmann said. The concept goes back as far as ancient Rome, she said, when women would wear two-pieces to bathe or play sports.

Since its introduction in the United States, the garment has reflected fashion and pop trends, she said. Coverage, for example, initially remained modest until the freewheeling 1970s, when clothes in general were more revealing.

"There are fashions in bikinis and swimsuits just like there are fashions in other types of outerwear," Trautmann said. "We've seen the effect of lingerie on bikinis. When the Wonderbra came out as an undergarment, we saw that take over the bikini as well."

The bikini's form also seems to play into what Trautmann calls the "shifting erogenous zone theory." As people get overexposed to one area of the body, their attention will shift to another part and create a need for a garment to accent that area.

Throughout the years, the bikini's cut has changed to showcase a woman's shoulders, breasts, thighs and buttocks.

Today, however, the varying styles of tops and bottoms have made it possible to accent - or hide - practically any part of the body a woman desires, according to Linda Gerken and Diane Coultas, sales managers with nearly 35 years of combined retail experience.

"Bikini" used to infer a bra-like type and triangular bottom that only women of certain body shapes could pull off, Coultas said.

Now, bikini bottoms come in shorts, skirts, French cut, boy cut, thong, low-rise and more. Tops offer as much support, or lack thereof, as a woman needs and range from the triangular string bikini to halter tops to the newest design, the tankini, a tank-top that can cover as much of a woman's midriff as she prefers.

At Knight's Action Park, both Cook and McMinn wore variations of the tankini. McMinn's bright pink top overlapped her matching bottoms to give the appearance of a one-piece, while Cook's blue-and-green top ended a few inches above.

Both said they like how women can mix and match tops and bottoms to find the appropriate style and size for their body.

Coultas and Gerken said it's one of the best evolutions of the bikini thus far.

"It's just so adaptable and can be worn in any way," Coultas said. "The bikini means it's two pieces. It doesn't have to be revealing anymore."

As accommodating as the bikini is for women today, Chris "Ball-J" Jones, 25, says not everybody should wear one.

"It can be a beautiful item on a beautiful person," he said while sitting on the veranda at a Springfield, Ill., lake-side beach recently. "But it can be just as ugly on the wrong person.

"I'm looking at some of them right out there," he gestures to the beach below him, "and thinking, they don't need to be wearing 'em."

Jones said he views the bikini's purpose as threefold: to allow for maximum sun exposure, to show off a woman's body and to attract gentlemen onlookers. He said he's noticed that some bikinis are cut so they aren't too revealing but allow for a good tan, while others obviously are to attract male attention.

He suggests an age restriction for bikini-baring females. While he's not against older women wearing them ("Rock it until your body goes," he said. "You can be 60 and be pretty."), he is for restricting those younger than 18.

"The little mamas don't need to be wearing them until they're 18," he said, noting that should include toddlers in two-pieces.

But if you are of age and have the body, he said, go for it.

"If you got it, flaunt it, mama, until you can't flaunt it no more."

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