The Vatican declared it sinful. It was even banned by the Hollywood’s Hays Code for a time. Fashion magazines said it was tasteless. When the first “itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie” bikini first appeared 68 years ago, the two-piece swimsuit made waves across the world. “People were craving the simple pleasures of the sea and the sun,” French newspaper Le Figaro wrote about the daring new fashion trend. “For women, wearing a bikini signaled a kind of second liberation. There was really nothing sexual about this. It was instead a celebration of freedom and a return to the joys in life.” Hollywood stars like Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, and Marilyn Monroe turned American heads with their two-piece pinup photos, while celebrities like Sophia Loren and Anita Ekberg made the bikini a mainstay on European shores. Here are ten other cultural icons who helped popularize the bikini. In some cases, their flesh-baring swimsuits contributed to important discussions about race, sexuality, and gender.
Ursula Andress, Dr. No
It’s impossible to discuss the James Bond films without mentioning the gorgeous women who helped make the movies unforgettable. In the first chapter of cinema’s longest continually running film series, Dr. No, Swiss bombshell Ursula Andress stole the spotlight when she emerged from the ocean, bronzed and clad in a white bikini singing “Under the Mango Tree.” Her character, Honey Ryder, was depicted as an independent, fearless woman who made her living selling seashells in Miami. But it was Honey’s bikini that made film and fashion history. Sales of two-piece bathing suits skyrocketed after the film’s release (British Army belt and knife not included). Audiences were quite taken with Andress as Honey, as was 007 author Ian Fleming who visited the set to meet the actress in person. Legendary pinup photographer Bunny Yeager was hired to capture Andress in her famous bikini while shooting on location in Jamaica. Andress’ appearance set the standard for all Bond girls to follow: stunningly beautiful, sexually liberated, exotic, bold, a partner in crime, but also a damsel in distress. The bikini said it all.
Raquel Welch, One Million Years B.C.
Hammer Films enthusiasts and movie memorabilia collectors go mad over the poster for the British studio’s 1966 film One Million Years B.C. — and it’s easy to see why. The publicity photo of star Raquel Welch featured on the poster depicts the actress wearing “mankind’s first bikini.” The image sparked a wildly successful marketing campaign for Hammer, overshadowing the studio’s original selling point — Ray Harryhausen’s special effects. Welch only had a few lines of dialogue in the movie, but her fur bikini spoke volumes to fans around the world. Despite her conflicting feelings about the role, Welch rose to prominence after the film and became an iconic sex symbol.
Carrie Fisher, Return of the Jedi
Adolescent jaws dropped when audiences set eyes on Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Decked out in a plunging metal bikini with a silk loincloth, collar, and chain, the seductively dressed Slave Leia was the captive of the slug overlord Jabba the Hutt. Fisher would later describe the uncomfortable brass costume as “what supermodels will eventually wear in the seventh ring of hell.” The iconic costume is a staple for cosplayers and daring trick or treaters, but the sexist implications of the costume have also opened a dialogue about the portrayal of women in pop culture. This is a conversation Fisher started back in 1983 when she spoke to Rolling Stone:
She has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds — along with her hairdresser — so all she has is a cause. From the first film, she was just a soldier, front line and center. The only way they knew to make the character strong was to make her angry. In Return of the Jedi, she gets to be more feminine, more supportive, more affectionate. But let’s not forget that these movies are basically boys’ fantasies. So the other way they made her more female in this one was to have her take off her clothes.
Phoebe Cates, Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Cameron Crowe’s coming-of-age comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High became a rite of passage for many teenagers thanks to the scene in which Phoebe Cates’ character emerges from a pool and opens her skimpy, red bikini top. During the filming of the flesh-baring scene, Cates was worried people in the West Hills neighborhood were spying on her, but she managed to pull it off with aplomb.
Annette Funicello, Beach Party
Bikinis, music, and adventure populated the Beach Party films of the 1960s, starring 20-somethings Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello as teen sand and surf addicts. With no parents around and no rules, the Beach Party stars were free to frolic as they pleased. Funicello was a former Disney star. In order to maintain the company’s wholesome image, Walt Disney requested that she dress modestly and keep her navel covered — but he didn’t get his way. Funicello appeared in the first Beach Party movie wearing a pink two-piece. Her bikinis became increasingly daring, popularizing the swimsuit and setting a trend for young beachgoers in America.
Brigitte Bardot at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival
Brigitte Bardot’s sexpot image was born on the beaches of Cannes during the sixth year of the esteemed festival. The 18-year-old unknown actress was photographed by paparazzi during the 1953 French fest. Her appearance almost singlehandedly reinvented the image of the starlet as a liberated, natural, and spontaneous woman. Unfussy hair, bare feet, and a playful bikini put her in the public eye, and the actress rose to stardom three years later in Roger Vadim’s Et Dieu… créa la femme (And God Created Woman).
Grace Jones, Conan the Destroyer
Just one year before Grace Jones wore a bandeau bikini top for the cover of her album Island Life (photographed by then husband Jean-Paul Goude), she was strapped into a leather and metal bikini for her part as Zula the warrior in 1984’s Conan the Destroyer. Did we mention she wears an animal tail, too? Zula is depicted as a powerful fighter (Jones put several stuntmen in the hospital while training for the part, which took 18 months), and her badass bikini means business. The outfit and Jones’ image in the movie was examined in the context of race and representation by writer Yvonne Tasker in her book Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema:
Grace Jones is literally given a tail. The meaning of the emphasis placed on animality in Grace Jones’ film roles is, however, complexly linked to the ways in which her image itself has addressed the stereotypical physicality and sexuality attributed to the black woman. The complex orchestration of signification involved in Jones’ performances in film, in music video and as a singer, involves the simultaneous assertion of and challenge to the kinds of racist fantasies posed by Jean-Paul Goude’s construction of her as a caged animal. The ‘macho’ aspects of the black action heroine — her ability to fight, her self-confidence, even arrogance — are bound up in an aggressive assertion of her sexuality. Simultaneously it is the same stereotypical attribution of sexuality to the black woman which generates anxiety around her representation.
“Bikinis and big booties — that’s what it’s all about.”
“Like Reefer Madness and its ilk, the movie exaggerates the current generation’s debauchery to have it both ways: to arouse as it alarms. . . .”
Tara Reid, The Big Lebowski
It’s probably safe to say that Tara Reid will never top her brief, but memorable role in The Big Lebowski as the trophy wife of the titular millionaire. Her spoiled character, Bunny, wears a green bikini and nail polish (the color of money, natch) while propositioning the Dude (Jeff Bridges) in exchange for one thousand dollars.
Salma Hayek, From Dusk Till Dawn
Salma Hayek proved that bikinis aren’t just for the beach. She wore a vampy getup for a reptilian dance routine at a bar in the middle of the Mexican desert in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn. It’s an image many audiences won’t soon forget — though we’d like to forget foot fetishist and From Dusk Till Dawn star Quentin Tarantino sucking on Hayek’s toes in the film.