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Irreversible Bikini

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Surfing’s first documented wardrobe malfunction may be attributed to an unlikely candidate: the world’s best-selling novelist, Agatha Christie. The English queen of mystery fiction also happened to be a keen surfer. In 1920, Christie set off on an around-the-world adventure of the British Empire’s colonies. She learned to surf prone in South Africa, and in Hawaii, she not only became one of the first Britons to experience stand-up surfing, but also was introduced to more-functional swimwear, after her ankle-length “handsome silk bathing dress” was ripped from her body “by the force of the waves.” 

“Almost nude, I made for my beach wrap. I had immediately to visit the hotel shop and provide myself with a wonderful, skimpy, emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well,” Christie recalls in letters published in The Grand Tour. “It was heaven. Nothing like it. Nothing like rushing through the water at what seems to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour…until you arrived, gently slowing down, on the beach, and foundered among the soft flowing waves. It is one of the most perfect physical pleasures that I have known.” 

Christie was humbled in the way many women have been in the surf: betrayed by their surfing attire. Her “skimpy bathing dress” was modest by modern standards, but is a forebear of the bikini—amongst the most emotionally evocative articles of clothing. 

In 1946, French designer Louis Réard launched his bold experiment: a revealing two-piece swimming ensemble. Inspired by the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, Réard named the four strategically placed triangles of fabric le Bikini. Prior to this point, the navel had been considered too racy to show off. 

“In prudish America, the bikini was successfully resisted until the early 1960s,” the editors at History.com detail in “Bikini Introduced.” The item of clothing “was immortalized by the pop singer Brian Hyland, who sang ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini’ in 1960, by the teenage ‘beach blanket’ movies of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, and by the California surfing culture celebrated by rock groups like the Beach Boys.” 

As novel as the bikini was for the twentieth century, ancient Roman apparel predated the “invention” by about 1,700 years. In Italy, female athletes wore strapless bandeau tops and briefs, as depicted in the mosaic Sala delle Dieci Ragazze. Then and now, the bikini allows women a full range of motion in athletic pursuits. The bikini also amplifies the inherent sensuality of baring skin to the elements—of riding waves. 

Hawaiian myth inexorably interweaves surfing with sensuality and sexuality, revealing the timeless experience of bodily pleasure in the sport of “kings and queens.” In Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport, authors Ben R. Finney and James D. Houston write: “If a man and woman happened to ride the same wave together, custom allowed certain intimacies when they returned to the beach. More formal courtship was also carried out in the surf, when a man or woman tried to woo and win a mate by performing on the waves.” Bluntly stated by historian J. Waimau: “If a man and woman rode in on the same wave together it was sometimes a sign of attraction. If that was the case, it was entirely natural for the two to later get into it, sexually.” European colonizers were so aghast by the Polynesians that they introduced the long-sleeved, high-necked, shapeless muumuu dress to tent the bodies that so offended their godliness. 

At its core, surfing is about play in a spontaneous sea, shedding terrestrial clothing and concerns. Surfers unleash

our largest sensory organ: skin. Feeling nearly naked to sunshine, wind, and water was as undeniable then as it is now. In modernity, this element of the surfing experience has been exploited and capitalized upon in myriad ways. The beautiful, even innocent, sensuality of the sport frequently has been confused with raunchy representations and the hypersexualizations of a patriarchal gaze. 

Like most women’s sports, surfing has had to wrestle with these questions: How do we celebrate women as athletes without neutering them? Where’s the line between celebrating womanhood and outright objectifying? When will ability be rewarded as handsomely as nudity?

Words excerpted from She Surf: The Rise of Female Surfing, 256 pages, Gestalten. Available now at us.gestalten.com.

Feature image: Stephanie Gilmore, Mexico. Photograph by Morgan Maassen.