Every time telling about the history of bikinis, it should be remembered that historically significant moment in the ancient world, when the so-called "Bikini Girls" for the first time wore something surprisingly similar to one of the most revolutionary discoveries of the 20th century.
The history of the bikini can be traced back to that era of Ancient Rome. Popularly known as the "bikini girls", these women wore bust support during exercise, and a nappy-like pants that allowed for maximum freedom of movement, as evidenced by athletes in the Roman mosaic 'Coronation of the Winner' which dates from the Diocletian period (286 - 305 CE). [2.]
"Bikini Girls" are featured in a mosaic in the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, a large agricultural estate that was probably owned by a member of the Senate or, possibly, Emperor Maximian. Between 1950 and 1960, Gino Vinicio Gentili excavated the site and around 1959 - 60 he discovered the mosaic that depicted young women running, playing games with balls, throwing the discus and lifting weights, with the toga-clad winner holding a crown. [2.]
And this is not the only example of the antique world! Similarly modern-looking undergarments also turned up in the ruins of the city of Pompeii, worn by a curvy marble statue of Venus. Leaning on Cupid, Venus removes her sandal, clad only in a gold-leaf bikini. [2.]
How could the Romans invent something so modern? Therefore it is worth taking a look at their socialization habits and learn more about wearing of one of the most ancient "bikini"!
What Exactly Did They Wear?
Sources say that the patricians of Ancient Rome, were the first who established villa culture in a desire to enjoy the coveted pleasures of country life... In the context of the culture of the antique world, the Villa Romana del Casale is a unique object that covers an area of 4,000 square metres, built on a series of terraces with three major axes. In the bathing complex there is a frigiderium (cold room), a tepidarium (warm room) and it then opens out into a trio of calderia, or hot baths. Ancient people who enjoyed life in this countryside villa, could relax in this place, and read the books of the ancient authors, sleep or rest while enjoying the excellent wine and fresh food in great abundance. [5.]
...and this is where the "Bikini Girls" appear. How did the Romans then named "bikini" that was created or rather re-invented in the 20th century? What did it consist of?
The bikini-style bottom was actually a wrapped loincloth made of cloth or leather. In Ancient Rome it was called a subligaculum ("little binding underneath"). The upper part of the ancient bikini was a band of cloth or leather. Romans called it - strophium or mamillare.
The exercising bikini girls from Piazza Armerina are depicted wearing subligaculum and a strophium - a band of cloth that was covered up the breasts. In literature it is often mentioned as fascia, which can mean any kind of bandage. Sources say that those bands had to be wrapped several times around the breasts, largely to flatten them. These ancient breast-bands may have been used to flatten big breasts and, sometimes, also padded to make them similar to contemporary push-up bras.
Who and When?
Researchers of Ancient Roman domestic habits and culture, have recognized that there has been no evidence that these ancient bikinis were used for swimming or sun-bathing. The images from Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina are showing ten women that apparently were exercising in clothing that has been named as a bikini in the 20th century. Even if the bikini girls are depicted wight-lifting, discus throwing, and running, some of their activities have been described by scholars as dancing, as their bodies resemble dancers rather than athletes. Some scholars maintain that the nearby image of Eros (the primordial god of lust, love, and intercourse) was added later for one part of the mosaic where a woman in a draped clothes, and with a crown in her hand has been depicted. This probably has been done because the owner of the villa wanted to strengthen the association of the bikini wearing with the erotic. Athletic bodies and skimpy clothes testified about prostitution, as the images of prostitutes that were exercising with dumbbells and other equipment, have been found also in other sites in Italy. Interesting enough that those girls wore clothes similar to bikini. [6.]
Trivia of the Ancient Bikini
References in ancient literature are confirming the existence of bikinis in the antique world. The representative of Latin literature, Ovid has mentioned the breast-band or long strip of cloth wrapped around the breasts and tucked in the ends, as a good place to hide love-letters. [1.]
Another Latin poet, Martial from Hispania who published between AD 86 and 103, mentioned a sex worker who went to the bathhouse in a bikini, while it was more natural to go unclothed.
Sources say, that Theodora, the 6th century empress of the Byzantine Empire wore a bikini when she appeared as an actress before she captured the heart of emperor Justinian. [6.]
However, athletes also wore a bikini. Historical evidence confirms that ancient Roman women who were playing an early version of handball (called as expulsim ludere) also wore a costume that later has been identified as an early bikini.
What Happened Later?
Between the ancient bikinis and the modern bikini there has been a long interval.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the development of a very special swimsuits has gone through different stages of evolution. At the very beginning of the 20th century women wore wool dresses on the beach that were made of up to approximately 8 meters of fabric. It is even hard to believe that standard of such swimwear evolved into the modern bikini in the first of half of the 20th century. Although this is the subject of another story...
After World War II, French engineer Louis Réard introduced a two-piece swimsuit, the modern "bikini", modeled by Micheline Bernardini, on July 5, 1946. The name "bikini" was borrowed from the Bikini Atoll, where post-war testing on the atomic bomb were taking place.
Interesting enough that before that revolutionary invention, fashion designer Jacques Heim from Paris released a two-piece swimsuit design in 1946 that he named the "Atome", but it failed to attract much attention. Réard also created one-piece swimsuit that was named "Atome" and it was widely advertised as the “smallest bathing suit in the world”. And so it came to be said that his new two piece bathing suit "the bikini" had "split the atom". In any case, the bikini was a more successful name for a swimsuit, that quickly attracted attention. It is also a catchy word and so it quickly caught on.
The rest is history.
References & Further Reading:
1. Cleland, L & Llewellyn-Jones, L. Greek and Roman Dress from A to Z. - Routledge, 2007.
2. Scott, L. Lingerie: a modern guide. - Quantum Publishing, 2010.
You May Also Like:
Share this story & Flip it!
Other Stories In This Section
My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.