Fashion in Film: Swimwear

Sophia Satchell Baeza

The flaunting of swimwear can be an awkward moment in film – at once stylish or sexy, it also reveals the inherent voyeurism of the cinematic gaze. Just think of Roger Vadim’s camera hovering over his wife on the beach in And God Created Woman (1956) or Harmony Korine’s slow motion, high-def shots of almost naked revellers – and another lead (and wife) Rachel Korine, in Spring Breakers. Often these scenes can descend into blatant camp: see Borat’s mankini or Pamela Anderson’s slo-mo red swimming costume in American TV series Baywatch (1989-2001).

But it’s the bikini that has the most interesting history. It was invented in 1946 by a Frenchman – quelle surprise – called Louis Réard, an engineer who unveiled to the world an item of clothing “smaller than the world’s smallest swimsuit”. Named after Bikini Atoll (a small coral island in the South Pacific, where four days previously the U.S. Navy had detonated a 23 kiloton atomic bomb for nuclear tests), Réard hoped his invention would go off with a similar bang – and as many of our film examples proved, this was certainly the case. At first risqué, the bikini was popularised by actresses such as Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Joan Collins. But lovers of leisure wear, swimming trunks and full-length gowns, fret not, these also get a look-in in our top twenty swimwear scenes in film.

1. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962) 

This may well be my favourite beachwear look on this list. In the closing credits of the film, the delusional child-star Jane (Bette Davis) hits the beach in an old Victorian lace dress, passionately going through her old routine for an imagined audience of confused young bathers.

2. Our Girl Friday (Noel Langley, 1953)

Joan Collins claims to have worn the first ever bikini on the big screen, although it seems that Bardot wore it earlier in Willy Rozier’s The Girl in the Bikini (1952). Collins plays a hoity-toity heiress, who gets resourceful with Kenneth More’s old sailor shirt, and fashions this little number.

3. Blue Hawaii (Norman Taurog, 1961)

Elvis is home from the army. But instead of working at his family’s pineapple plantation in Honolulu, he’d rather catch some tubular waves with his surfer buddies at the beach. With random bursts into song of such classics as “Rock-a-Hula Baby” and "Can’t Help Falling in Love”, get ready to swoon at Presley’s wiggly hips.

4. Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962)

Of course this was going to make the list, come on now. Swiss actress Ursula Andress (or should that be Undress?) saunters out of tropical waters holding sea-shells and singing “Underneath the Mango Tree” in this iconic two-piece, accessorized with a particularly Freudian looking scabbard.

5. To Catch A Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)

As elaborate swimwear goes, Grace Kelly wins hands down. As Frances Stevens, Kelly wears one of the more OTT poolside looks in cinema. Designed by celebrated Hollywood costumier Edith Head, the look was streamlined but complicated, so let’s break this look down now, shall we? A black turban with a white brimmed hat with no top, black Capri pants matched with wedged heels, a black halter-neck beach top combined with an open-fronted drawstring skirt, and all of it accessorised with a beach bag. There is no such thing as over-dressed on the Riviera, dahhhling.

6. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)

Middleweight boxer Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) spots 15-year-old Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) sunning herself in an outdoor swimming pool in the Bronx. From that moment on, he’s smitten.

7. Sexy Beast (Jonathan Glazer, 2002)

In a great opening shot, Ray Winstone is loving life in Spain, as he reclines, beer bottles (and belly) strewn everywhere. Then a crescendo of The Strangler’s “Peaches” takes this scene to the next level.

8. One Million Years B.C. (Don Chaffey, 1966)

"Travel back through time and space to the edge of man's a savage world whose only law was lust!", went the tagline. Who knew that prehistoric man had such a mastery of underwiring?

9. 10 (Blake Edwards, 1979)

Bo Derek, a skin-coloured swimming costume and beaded cornrows – OH, THE 70s! For further proof that white people rarely pull off cornrows, check out the illuminating online list “25 White People and Cornrows”. It says all you need to know.

10. Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)

Before carving out a niche in problematic terrorist blockbusters, Bigelow directed Keanu Reaves and Patrick Swayze in the cult surfer thriller Point Break, and wetsuits have never looked as good since. Did you know Keanu’s name means “cool breeze” in Hawaiian?

11. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013)

Spring Breakers seems like one of those films destined for top twenty lists. Korine’s stylised spring break drama is about as referential as it gets, and the same can be said for the neon and pastel swimwear. Korine’s film looks back to the '60s American genre of the beach party film, and later films like Sean S. Cunningham’s Spring Break (1983). The swimsuits, worn by the girls for most of the film, were carefully chosen by costume designer Heidi Bivens to pick up on the colours and styles of the Florida landscape. Wait a minute, is that another white dude in cornrows?!

12. And God Created Woman (Roger Vadim, 1956)

Brigitte Bardot is often credited with popularising the bikini through her on-screen performances; years earlier, she starred in The Girl In the Bikini, but it was her performance as a sensual wild child in a provincial seaside town, which transformed her career.

13. Plein Soleil (René Clément, 1960)

A brooding Alain Delon stars as Tom Ripley in this tense thriller, later remade as The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), with Jude “Yawn” Law’s as a buff Dickie Greenleaf in '50s beach shorts.

14. Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983)

Nothing says ‘safe in the sun’ like Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher)’s metal bikini. I can’t imagine how much heat could be potentially conducted by that chainmail style. No wonder she ends up strangling Jabba the Hutt.

15. High Society (Charles Walters, 1956)

Before Kelly has one too many and leans in for a snog with Sinatra, she wears this demure yet classy costume – a white halterneck costume with an integrated skirt, and a floor-length white robe with a silk cord belt to wear over it. Stop it Grace, it’s too much!

16. The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999)

Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) is a teen heartthrob chillin’ on a lino. Peach Schnapps, the babes love it.

17. An Evening in Paris (Shakti Samanta, 1967)

Not to be mistaken with any of Paris Hilton’s cinematic oeuvre, An Evening in Paris caused a sensation in Bollywood, when actress Sharmila Tagore wore a turquoise blue floral swimsuit and in doing so changed movie history, becoming the first Indian actress to appear in swimwear. The bikini alarmed conservative Indian audiences but caused a sensation. Swimwear made a later appearance in Bollywood films such as Yeh Nazdeekiyan (1982),  Heera Panna (1973), Qurbani, 1980) and Bobby (1973).

18. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

The James Bond franchise has provided cinema with a dizzying array of top beachwear scenes, and we’re not just talking Bond girls. Sean Connery in louche leisure-wear is a minor favourite of mine, but this is undeniable. Objective opinion attests to the fine Romanesque physique of Daniel Craig in this famous beach scene: A Bond, sculpted out of marble, in Speedos.

19. Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, 2002)

For many, one of the best and most kick-ass Bond Girls, Halle Berry’s iconic beachwear moment was as Jinx, in a reinterpretation of Andress’ famous orange swimsuit. Berry’s bikini was recently exhibited at Ian Fleming’s centenary exhibition “For Your Eyes Only” at the Imperial War Museum in London.

20. Blue Crush (John Stockwell, 2002)

Beautiful surfer chicks kick ass in Hawaii, as Kate Bosworth tries to take on Pipeline, the North Shore’s scary killer wave. Warning, fatty: there are more toned abs on show than a Davina McCall fitness video.

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