Ancient Roman mosaic reveals: Women wore bikinis thousands of years ago

Many believe that the bikini is a 20th-century invention. In 1946, it was independently conceived by two French designers. Jacques Heim, the proprietor of a clothing store in Cannes, pioneered this swimsuit, which he dubbed “sealed” to highlight its minuscule size, comparable to the dimensions of an atom, the tiniest unit of a chemical element.

Simultaneously, automobile engineer Louis Riel, employed by his mother’s lingerie firm in Paris, designed a similar swimsuit, even smaller and more revealing. His inspiration for this minimalist design came from observing women at Saint-Tropez beaches rolling up the edges of their swimsuits to catch more sun.

Riel christened his creation “bikini,” inspired by the ongoing nuclear weapons tests on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean during that era. He claimed that his invention possessed “atomic” allure and thus named it “bikini” after the island.

However, an ancient mosaic discovered in the Roman villa at Casale, Sicily, dating back to the early fourth century, offers an astonishing revelation. Amidst the archaeological ruins, one of the most extensive collections of ancient Roman mosaics was remarkably preserved.

This is Not the First Bikini

In the artwork known as “The Winner’s Crowning,” depicted in a floor mosaic in the “Ten Maidens” room within the villa, several women are portrayed in scanty attire. Eight of them wear a two-piece bikini, akin to the modern version, while one woman dons a sheer yellow dress, and only one figure has not survived the ravages of time.

The lower part of this attire appears as a terracotta-colored fabric or leather strap, resembling men’s loincloths. The upper part resembles a contemporary strapless design, echoing the chest harnesses of ancient Greece, primarily constructed from linen. These garments catered to active women who engaged in physical activities.


Bikini: Not for swimming, for sports

Hence, it can be inferred that in antiquity, the bikini served not for swimming but for sports activities, which is precisely what the women depicted in the mosaic are engaged in.

Some are running, others are throwing a discus or holding weights, and two women are seen playing a ball game, potentially an early form of volleyball. Ball games have a longstanding history, with mentions found in Homer’s Odyssey.

One woman at the center of the mosaic holds a palm branch in one hand, poised to crown herself with a victory wreath, likely a reward for exceptional performance. All these women exhibit athleticism, displaying well-defined muscle contours in their arms and legs.

In the realm of sports, women in ancient Rome were permitted to participate in physical activities, albeit within certain patriarchal constraints. They were not allowed to compete with men, and public female nudity was discouraged. Therefore, a precursor to the modern bikini facilitated comfortable participation in sports.

Other archaeological findings

This mosaic is not the sole evidence of this garment’s ancient origins.

In 1998, British archaeologists unearthed a bikini bottom or something akin to a leather thong, more suitable for modern swimwear when fastened with delicate strings. This intriguing relic is now on display at the London Museum.

How the bikini became popular

Although we have established that the modern world did not invent the bikini, it is essential to consider how it gained widespread popularity. The pivotal moment is generally dated to July 5, 1946, when, partly due to post-World War II material rationing, French engineer Louis Réard introduced the modern bikini, modeled after Micheline Bernardini.

Furthermore, owing to the historical context of the era, Réard christened his design “Bikini Atoll,” named after the location where the first post-war atomic bomb tests occurred. The term was highly publicized at the time and, frankly, had an appealing ring to it.

While famous actresses such as Brigitte Bardot and Ava Gardner donned bikinis in the 1950s, it was Swiss actress Ursula Andress’s iconic appearance in the James Bond classic “Dr. No” as she emerged from the Caribbean that propelled the bikini into mainstream beachwear.

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