When you think about it, bikinis (those wispy triangles of fabric often smaller than their own price tag) occupy a far larger place in the human imagination than on the human body. Fashion magazines glorify it – they’re brighter/lighter/lacier/racier every season. Instagram deems it a rite of passage – it’s not an epic vacation until you show off your sunset-wali bikini.
Bollywood has seen it as a Lakshman rekha – wearing one qualifies our heroines to cross over to bindaas sexiness. Indian women see it as the final frontier of fitness – surely only perfect bodies can pull them off, right? And for much of middle-class India, it’s a point of contention – how dare you wear something so skimpy?
How the bikini revolution is tied by strings to Bollywood
And yet, by our poolsides and beaches, a revolution has been taking hold. Indian women are getting more and more comfortable with the idea of the bikini. They’re discarding more modest swimwear (conservative malliots, sleeved suits, ugly sports shorts) and plunging right in with the strappy two-piece. Shah Rukh Khan’s daughter Suhana was wearing one in that adorable peekaboo picture with baby AbRam in a viral image that has since been taken off the web.
Online retailer Jabong has more than 500 two-piece options from local and international brands this summer. And last year, when Alia Bhatt wore an itsy-bitsy fuchsia one in Shaandaar, she merely did what every A-list star has been doing this decade – pulling on a bikini like it’s no big deal.
What happened? How did we go from fearing the bikini to feeling comfortable in it? Shobhaa De, author, columnist and “designated bikini shopper for her daughters for the past 20 odd years” offers a simple explanation: India herself has come of age. “Better bodies. Higher fitness levels. More exposure (pun intended!),” she says.
Designers Shivan Bhatiya and Narresh Kukreja, who pioneered luxury swimwear in India with their label Shivan & Narresh, believe the last five years have been particularly explosive. “Even a decade ago, when we launched our line, it was an alien concept here,” recalls Narresh. “Women who wanted good products shopped for swimwear and lingerie abroad, pushing themselves to fit into warped American sizing, which took a toll on their self-confidence,” says Shivan.
The designers’ success loosened both attitudes and purse strings. Local and international brands began offering affordable swimwear in India. Online stores allowed women to browse, try and return a risqué garment without ever leaving their bedrooms. And somewhere along the way, Indian women stopped letting conservative voices get in their way of their sartorial swimwear choices.
“It is still a niche trend,” warns Shefalee Vasudev, fashion editor at Mint. “It is popular with a small group of women who may wear bikinis on holidays abroad or at beach resorts and might choose one for certain parties at a destination beach wedding. For many, the fear of being judged by what you wear is ingrained. Whether we like it or not, being morally policed in the context of clothing is still a reality for large sections of Indian society.” And yet, for more and more of us, the decision is no longer To Dare Or Not To Dare?, but Halter Neck or Balconette?
Critics who dismiss revealing poolside clothing as a new-fangled foreign perversion will be surprised to know that India was very waterfront-friendly 2,000 years ago. Women publicly bathed at our ghats in a loincloth and a girdle around their chest. “It’s not an alien or Western concept,” says Shivan. “In addition, India is probably the only civilisation that bared the midriff.”
Even the modern version of the bikini is only a year older than independent India herself, as Kelly Killoren Bensimon describes in The Bikini Book. In the 1940s, a wartime era when attractive women were called ‘bombshells’ and ‘atomic’ was a suitable term for anything superlative, two Frenchmen were changing the way women dressed for the beach. One, Jacques Heim, a swimwear designer in Cannes, created a tiny suit called the Atome in the summer of 1946. He then hired skywriters to fly over the Riviera, proclaiming that he’d created “the smallest bathing suit in the world”.
We’d all be wearing atomes if not for his compatriot, the automotive engineer Louis Réard. You could say Réard split the atome – he introduced a skimpier version on July 5, just days after America began nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll islands and named his invention Le Bikini – a bomb on a much bigger scale. Réard hired his own skywriters, this time to claim that his design was “smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world”. It could even be pulled through a wedding ring.
France reacted to the bikini the same way many people across the world still do – with shock. Models deemed it too indecent; Réard had to get an exotic dancer to pose in it. But by 1953, when Brigitte Bardot was photographed on Cannes beaches wearing nothing but a bikini, it had become a Mediterranean must-have.
The coming years were good to the bikini. Spandex (trademarked as Lycra) was invented in 1959, transforming swimwear with its stretchy, water-resistant, shiny quality that no longer needed artful sewing to support curves. The sexual liberation of the ’60s and the popularity of private backyard pools gave Americans the courage to try it. And by 1967, Sharmila Tagore was totally on-trend, posing in the two-piece on the cover of a film magazine. “Even back then, nobody in India died of shock or protested,” says De.
The tiny bikini has met with resistance everywhere. The Vatican has tried to ban it. It was forbidden on beaches in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Australia. But perhaps the biggest hurdle has been our own attitudes to our bodies: most women fear that they don’t measure up. The “bikini body”, a stubborn term that first appeared in 1961 American ads for weight-loss salons, has been upheld as a physical and fashion idea. Bikini bodies have been advertised as an aspiration, an achievement, and certainly a requirement for putting on the two-piece.
But even that’s changing, says Narresh. “Across the world, people are saying ‘To hell with the idea of a bikini-ready body’. Kim Kardashian curves are in, selfies are pushing the idea of celebrating yourself.” As for the old diktat of wearing what you can “carry off” Vasudev believes it’s a flawed view too. “The glossy-magazine notion of a bikini-ready body ideal casts judgement on a woman’s sex appeal, which may not necessarily be a formulaic sum of perfect sizes,” she says. “Like every other garment, a bikini’s appeal lies in wearing it at appropriate times, as a functional garment or a fashion one! Fear of judgement should not stop a woman from wearing it.”
Shivan & Narresh have a few pointers for bikini first-timers: both wearers and viewers. “Stick to retro styles, with high waists [and full bottom coverage] to ease into the style, luckily they’re back in a big way this season. But always, wear your confidence before you wear your bikini.” And pass that confidence along. If your friend, mother, sister or daughter is wearing one for the first time, “compliment her,” Shivan says. “Don’t call attention to scars, bulges or pregnancy marks. Impart in a woman the assurance in her physical self that she can impart to the next generation.” Those in the know advise wearers that a bikini wax is also de rigueur.
And of course, if you do look like a glossy magazine’s idea of perfect, go for it. “What’s the point of working out like a demon if you can’t flaunt a hot bod?” asks De. “Bikinis are liberating. They say that the wearer is confident enough to wear a bathing suit that reveals more than it conceals.”
From HT Brunch May 15, 2016
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