On this day in 1964, Sports Illustrated released it’s very first swimsuit issue. The idea was a bit of a lark, a one-off supplement to keep guys warm (and buying magazines and turning pages) during the cold weeks between football and baseball seasons. (In ye olden days, there were blissfully long months between the major sports seasons, with boxing, tennis and basketball filling in as secondary diversions. Sportswriters could get desperate for copy. For instance, in the month following the first swimsuit issue, SI featured Bridge—the card game—as a cover story.) The 10-year-old magazine had put a swimsuit model on the cover once before in 1955, but the companion feature story presented real-life muckety-mucks palling around their Caribbean vacation homes in sportswear and summer dresses, not pretty models posing in scant swimsuits.
What is surprising about the inaugural swimsuit issue is it actually seems…sporting. Photographer J. Frederick Smith shot model Babette March laughing in the surf and grasping her nose as if she just snorted up a fistful of salt water. She looks fit but not buff; just a fun, healthy gal having a splash in the ocean. The accompanying cover lines—A Skin Diver’s Guide to the Caribbean—are not misleading: The issue includes articles about where to go and how to scuba and snorkel, and March’s bathing suit, though a bikini, qualifies as an appropriate swimsuit for the sport. Made in white kid leather—draw your own conclusions—the Rose Marie Reid–designed two-piece is considerably more chaste than the bikini Ursula Andress famously wore for her turn as a scuba diver in Doctor No two years earlier. But the soaking leather reveals only that March has just emerged from the watery depths; there’s a hint of nipple but zero evidence of cleave, ’tocks or even a hipbone. Nothing to see here but a pretty girl après dive.
Fast forward 10 or so years and the modest swimwear would morph into something far more risqué, if not unrecognizable as bathing suits. The first decade of SI swimsuit stories are cheesecake; the cornfed models could be, say, a girlfriend-next-door or the pretty wife who is also your best friend. In 1970, Cheryl Tiegs, in the first of her three cover appearances, looks positively brainy, a kind of Jackie Onassis–type in oversized sunglasses and a tennis-style maillot, displaying a relaxed, blonde pedigree that hearkens Martha’s Vineyard more than Playboy Mansion.
The 1973 cover serves up the first hint of raw seduction. Glowering model Dayle Haddon stares down the photographer alongside cover lines offering the challenge, “Don’t Just Sit There.” From here on, SI throws all pretention out the window: subsequent swimsuit issues are slightly more modest than the average skin magazine sold at the corner smoke shop, but shot on a much bigger budget. Since 2000, nearly every cover model has been photographed topless or in the process of undressing; the expression is always come hither.
Only a liar or fool would question the swimsuit issue’s m.o.: It makes a fortune selling sex, not bathing suits or sports. As writer Bryan Curtis put in Slate, “A writing assignment for the swimsuit issue is a dream come true for the Sports Illustrated staffer. He grabs an exotic dateline and the guarantee that no one will read anything he comes up with.” If that is true—and I believe it probably is—it’s a shame; in researching this story I read most of the articles accompanying the early swimsuit spreads and many were pretty great. Of course, readers will always scan the captions, if only to learn the cost of the swimsuit or the name of the “girls,” as the models are traditionally called. (SI was one of the first publications to print the names of the models alongside their photographs.)
And when it comes to the “girls,” landing the swimsuit issue is a financial windfall. Since Cheryl Tiegs became the magazine’s first breakout star, a lucrative modeling career is all but guaranteed for landing the cover, despite the fact that the models are paid only $150 to $250 a day for their efforts. The roll call of cover girls reads like a who’s-who of supermodel greats: Carol Alt, Christy Brinkley, Paulina Porizkova, Elle Macpherson, Kathy Ireland, Giselle, Tyra, Heidi—the list goes on and on.
But the question remains: Is the swimsuit issue…fashion? In short: Definitely. The 1964 story discusses the new bathing-suit materials (“the best news for amphibious ladies”) as studiously as Vogue might dissect tweed versus herringbone. The second swimsuit issue was published on the heels of Rudi Gernreich’s topless bathing suit brouhaha—Cody Bay’s Story Behind the Style about this event on this site is a must-read—and SI dives into the fray with a four-page swimsuit feature titled, “The Nudity Cult.” Written by none other than future gossip columnist Liz Smith (who wrote several years of stories accompanying the swimsuit features) and showing models in fishnet clothing and cut-out swimsuits, the article asks the existential sartorial conundrum, “Where do we go from here?”
From a design standpoint, the swimsuits have always been cutting edge. Major names in the fashion world, such as a young Bill Blass (designing for Roxanne), begin appearing in the third issue. “That master of body freedom,” designer Rudi Gernreich, exclusively dominates the 1968 issue, with five groovy, black wool swimsuits held together with clear plastic straps.
But it is the 1969 issue that qualifies as a bona fide fashion spread. Chic maillots by Oscar de la Renta, more daring designs by Gernreich, sporting attire by Blass—those three designers dominated the swimsuit issues for years—and the first contribution from the wunderkind of that era, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo. Betsey Johnson swimsuits make their first appearance in 1970. According to CNBC, today there are roughly 25,000 swimsuits in the “swimsuit closet” for the editors to choose from each year. An estimated 22 million female readers use the issue as a shopping guide for bikinis, jewelry, cover-ups and accessories, creating a considerable boon for designers.
The swimsuit issue is now its own beast and a goldmine for SI. It garners seven percent of magazine’s total ad revenue for the year and sells more than one million copies on newsstands (subscribers may opt out of the swimsuit issue; one percent take the magazine up on it). To boot, best-selling videos, television specials, calendars and commemorative publications are packaged alongside the photo shoots. But you’ve seen all that. For now, time travel back to the simpler days of the SI swimsuit issue, when the shoots were “a photographer and me with five cameras around my neck,” according to editor Jule Campbell, who created all of the swimsuit shoots from 1964 to 1996. —Ali Basye
Photo credits: From top: J. Frederick Smith, Jay Maisel, Walter Iooss, Jr., John G. Zimmerman, Ernst Haas, J. Frederick Smith, Jay Maisel, Howell Conant, Jay Maisel, Robert Huntzinger, John G. Zimmerman, Jay Maisel, Philip O. Stearns. All images copyright of Sports Illustrated/Time Magazine.