You’d think they had just taken a dare to wear white Hush Puppies after Labor Day. Store managers and buyers all over Manhattan were pinching their noses, squeezing their eyes shut, and hoping that no one would notice. But reluctantly, they did it anyway: On June 16, 1964, topless bathing suits went on sale in stores in New York.
B. Altman & Co., Lord & Taylor, Henri Bendel, Splendiferous and Parisette all begrudgingly placed orders, with one anonymous store representative telling the New York Times, “We will not promote it or display it. If a customer asks for it, we will take her into a fitting room and show it to her. Please don’t quote me.” Abraham & Strauss ordered them but tucked them away in a drawer, saying they were obligated to keep some on hand in light of their slogan, “Don’t say you can’t find it until you’ve shopped A. & S.”
What makes this so especially ludicrious is that the suit’s designer, sportswear-turned-swimsuit guru Rudi Gernreich, never meant for anyone to like it. He designed the bosom-bearing one-piece as more as a fantastical idea, a prediction of the future. “[Women] drop their bikini tops already,” he said, “so it seemed like the natural next step.” And, he adds, “I didn’t want Pucci to do it first.”
Officially called the “monokini,” the swimsuit first appeared in Look in late 1963 in a feature on futuristic fashions. Once America saw it, the orders started rolling in—along with a torrent of hate mail and upheaval. The topless bikini became the fashion story of the year with everyone chiming in, from the Soviets (a sign of “capitalist decay”) to the Vatican (“negates moral sense”).
“I never dreamed it would go beyond the fashion business into sociology,” Gernreich said.
He’s kind of poo-pooing the hype, but the suit apparently meant more to the designer than he let on. As a teenager in Austria, he had fled the country with his family to escape Hitler, who had banned nudity. There were plenty of other reasons to get out, but for many Austrians who were big proponents of exercising and frolicking in the buff as a rejection of the over-civilized world, the Nazis had kicked them in their cultural groin. Gernreich grew up to be an open nudist, gay activist and advocate of sexual liberation, and regarded any action against bearing it all as fascist and oppressive. The acceptance of nudity, Gernreich told Time magazine in 1969, “is a natural development growing out of all the loosening up, the re-evaluation of values that’s going on. There is now an honesty hangup, and part of this is not hiding the body—it stands for freedom.”
Women dug the idea of going topless, though the obvious reason of avoiding tan lines was negated by the suit’s awkward straps. Store owners said they expected to sell to customers with private pools, tickets to Europe or the simple need to own whatever was new and weird.
The French, however, were baffled by the design. (The suit was even outlawed there on July 23.) In Chicago, a model was fined $100 for appearing on a public beach wearing the suit. In Dallas, a group from the Carroll Avenue Baptist Mission picketed a store on June 22 until they removed the suit from its window display. Church members carried signs saying “We Protest Topless Suits in the Name of Christ,” while its pastor said he feared if the trend were allowed to continue, topless shorts would be next. (Actually, what came next from Gernreich was a topless evening gown, which, by contrast, was a total belly flop.)
As stores continuously sold out of their stocks, reordered, and then sold out again, cheaper imitations by the likes of Colony Swim Suits sold for $9, as opposed to $23 for a Gernreich original. Convertible versions by Elon of California that could be worn with a matching bra languished on the shelves. Gernreich’s suit also inspired enterprising restaurant and bar owners in San Francisco, who thought it would be a fantastic idea to put ladies liberated of their tops on stage for paying customers, and another industry was born.
As if to push as many buttons as possible, Gernreich even followed it up a year later with a modified topless suit for little girls that featured a thin strip of fabric between the two straps across the chest. As the New York Times reported, “since the suits are for toddlers and preteens, there seems little likelihood of Gernriech’s creation being banned on many beaches.” In 1974, he introduced the thong—in both male and female versions.
These days, a whole array of bathing suits are sold under the monokini moniker by brands from Roxy and Billabong to Guess and Kenneth Cole, but they’re mostly an unsettling hybrid between and one-piece and a two. Not to be outdone, Gernreich, before his death in 1985, produced his swan song, the pubikini. This little number covered everything but the pubic area. Wherever that imaginative Dallas pastor is now, he is vindicated. —Cody Bay
Photo credits: top: photographer unknown: Gernreich poses with his model and muse, Peggy Moffitt, in 1968. Bottom left: (William Claxton) Gernreich muse Peggy Moffitt agreed to model his monokini, but only if her husband, photographer William Claxton, took the pictures. The photo appeared in Life and Women’s Wear Daily. Bottom right: Getty