The monokini, consisting of only a brief, close-fitting bottom, was the first women's topless swimsuit. Conceived and produced by designer Rudi Gernreich in 1964, his revolutionary and controversial design included a bottom that "extended from the midriff to the upper thigh" and was "held up by shoestring laces that make a halter around the neck." Some attribute Gernreich's design to initiating or consider it a symbol of the sexual revolution.
Gernreich designed the monokini as a protest against a repressive society. He didn't initially intend to produce the monokini commercially, but was persuaded by Susanne Kirtland of Look to make it available to the public. When the first photograph of the monokini modeled by Peggy Moffitt was published in Women's Wear Daily on June 3, 1964, it generated a great deal of controversy in the United States and other countries. The monokini was first worn publicly on June 22, 1964 by Carol Doda in San Francisco at the Condor Nightclub, ushering in the era of topless nightclubs in the United States, and in July 1964, by artist's model Toni Lee Shelley at a beach in Chicago.
Gernreich may have chosen his use of the word monokini (mono meaning single) in the mistaken belief that bikini was a compound of bi- ("bi" meaning two) and -kini. But that is a faulty back-formation, decomposing the word as the Latin prefix bi-, and kini, denoting a two-piece swimsuit. But in fact the bikini swimsuit design was named by its inventor Louis Réard after the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, five days after Operation Crossroads, the first peace-time test of nuclear weapons, took place there. Réard hoped his design would have a similarly explosive effect.
Austrian-American fashion designer Rudi Gernreich had strong feelings about society's sexualization of the human body and disagreed with religious and social beliefs that the body was essentially shameful. Gernreich grew up in Austria where its citizens were advocates of exercising nude, a rejection of the over-civilized world. His father was a stocking manufacturer who had died when Gernreich was 8. In 1939, his mother took him and they fled the country to escape Hitler, who among other things had banned nudity. In New York City, Gernreich was an open nudist and became a gay activist and advocate of sexual liberation, co-founding in 1950 the Mattachine Society. He thought government restraints on nudity were fascist and oppressive.
Gernreich developed a reputation as an avant-garde designer who broke many of the rules, and his swimsuit designs were unconventional. In its December 1962 issue, Sports Illustrated remarked, "He has turned the dancer's leotard into a swimsuit that frees the body. In the process, he has ripped out the boning and wiring that made American swimsuits seagoing corsets."  That month he first envisioned creating a topless swimsuit which he called a monokini. He predicted that "bosom will be uncovered within five years." He saw baring of a woman's breasts as a form of freedom.
At the end of 1963, Susanne Kirtland of Look called Gernreich and asked him to make the suit to accompany a trend story along futuristic lines. He resisted the idea at first, but since he had predicted its emergence, he didn't want another designer like Emilio Pucci to design it and get credit. Although he felt the swimsuit ought to just be bikini bottoms, he realized that this wouldn't constitute a unique design. He initially designed a Balinese sarong that began just under the breasts, but Kirtland didn't feel the design was bold enough and needed to make more of a statement. Gernreich instead chose a design that ended around mid-torso and was supported by two straps between the breasts and around the neck. When a photo shoot was arranged on Montego Bay in the Bahamas, all five models hired for the session refused to wear the design. The photographer finally persuaded a local prostitute to model it. A back view of it was published in Look on June 2, 1964.
A front photograph of model Peggy Moffitt in the monokini, taken by her husband William Claxton, was published soon after the Look image. It became a celebrated image of the extremism of 1960s designs. The photograph was published by Life and numerous other publications. Life writer Shana Alexander noted, "One funny thing about toplessness is that it really doesn't have much to do with breasts. Breasts of course are not absurd; topless swimsuits are. Lately people keep getting the two things mixed up." The photo catapulted Moffitt into instant celebrity, reportedly resulting in her receiving everything from marriage proposals to death threats. Moffitt and Claxton later wrote The Rudy Gernreich Book, described as an aesthetic biography of the fashion revolutionary.
Design as a statement
To avoid letting others sensationalize and to retain some control of the design, Claxton, Moffitt, and Gernreich decided to publish their own pictures for the fashion press and news media. They made the picture of the yellow wool swimsuit available to a handful of news organizations, and on June 3, columnist Carol Bjorkman of Women's Wear Daily published a frontal view picture of Moffitt wearing the suit. Gernreich initially never intended to produce the swimsuit commercially. The design had more meaning to Gernreich as an idea than as a reality. He had Moffitt model the suit for Diana Vreeland of Vogue, who asked him why he conceived of the design. Gernreich told her he felt it was time for "freedom-in fashion as well as every other facet of life," but that the swimsuit was just a statement. He said, “[Women] drop their bikini tops already,” he said, “so it seemed like the natural next step.” She told him, "If there's a picture of it, it's an actuality. You must make it." Rudi Gerenrich said in television interview, "It may well be a bit much now. But, just wait. In a couple of years topless bikinis will be a reality and regarded as perfectly natural."
Moffitt said the design was a logical evolution of Gernreich's avant-garde ideas in swimwear design as much as a scandalous symbol of the permissive society. She said, "He was trying to take away the prurience, the whole perverse side of sex." She said his design was "prophetic." "It had to do with more than what to wear to the beach. It was about a changing culture throughout all society, about freedom and emancipation. It was also a reaction against something particularly American: the little boy snickering that women had breasts." Gernreich told Time magazine in 1969, the monokini “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.”
The topless swimsuit reached its highest popularity level during the 1970s. In the early 1980s monokinis of the bikini-bottom only version (also known as the unikini) became popular.
In 1985, Gernreich unveiled the lesser known pubikini, a bathing suit meant to expose pubic hair. The pubikini is a small piece of fabric that hugs the hips and buttocks but leaves the pubic region exposed, described as a tiny V-shaped fabric strip and a piece de resistance totally freeing the human body. It featured a thong-style bottom while the front was a tiny V-shaped strip of fabric that dipped below the woman's mons pubis, exposing her pubic hair and portions of her vulva. This was his last design, four weeks before his death.
On June 22, 1964, the public relations manager of the Condor Nightclub in San Francisco's North Beach district gave former prune picker, file clerk, and waitress Carol Doda Gernreich's monokini to wear for her act. Her debut as a topless dancer was featured in Playboy magazine in April 1965. Doda was the first modern topless dancer in the United States,:25 renewing the burlesque era of the early Twentieth Century in the U.S. San Francisco Mayor John Shelley said, "topless is at the bottom of porn." Within a few days, women were baring their breasts in many of the clubs lining San Francisco's Broadway St., ushering in the era of the topless bar.
San Francisco public officials tolerated the topless bars until April 22, 1965, when the San Francisco Police Department arrested Doda on indecency charges. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the police department, calling for release of both Doda and free speech activist Mario Savio, held in the same station. Doda rapidly became a symbol of sexual freedom, while topless restaurants, shoeshine parlors, ice-cream stands and girl bands proliferated in San Francisco and elsewhere. Journalist Earl Wilson wrote in his syndicated column, "Are we ready for girls in topless gowns? Heck, we may not even notice them." English designers created topless evening gowns inspired by the idea. The San Francisco Examiner published a real estate advertisement that promised "bare top swimsuits are possible here".
When Toni Lee Shelley, a 19 year old artists model, wore the topless bathing suit to the North Avenue beach in Chicago, 12 police officers responded, 11 to control and disperse the public and photographers, and one to arrest her. She was charged with disorderly conduct, indecent exposure, and appearing on a public beach without suitable attire. At her arraignment she asked for an all-male jury. She told the press that the swimsuit was "certainly more comfortable." Shelley was fined US$100 for wearing the swimsuit on a public beach.
There was a strong public reaction to the original swimsuit design. The Soviet Union denounced the suit, saying it was "barbarism" and indicated "capitalistic decay". The Vatican renounced the swimsuit, and the L'Osservatore Romano said the "industrial-erotic adventure" of the topless bathing suit "negates moral sense." Many of Rudi's contemporaries in the fashion industry reacted negatively. In the US, some Republicans tried to blame the suit on the Democrats' stance on moral issues. Gernreich introduced the monokini at a time when U.S. nudists were trying to establish a public persona. The United States Postmaster General had banned nudist publications from the mail until 1958, when the Supreme Court of the United States declared that the naked body in and of itself could not be deemed obscene. Use of the word monokini was first recorded in English that year.
Gernreich first sold the suit to the Joseph Magnin department store in San Francisco, where it was an instant hit. In New York City, leading stores like B. Altman & Company, Lord & Taylor, Henri Bendel, Splendiferous and Parisette placed orders. On June 16, 1964, Gernreich's topless swimsuit went on sale in New York City. Despite the reaction of fashion critics and church officials, over 3000 monokinis at $24 each were purchased that summer.
As the suit gained notoriety, the New York City Police Department was strictly instructed by the commissioner of parks to arrest any woman wearing a monokini. In Dallas, Texas, when a local store featured the suit in a window display, members of the Carroll Avenue Baptist Mission picketed until they removed the display. Copious coverage of the event helped to send the image of exposed breasts across the world. Women's clubs and the Catholic church actively condemned the design. In Italy and Spain, the Catholic church warned against the topless fashion.
In France in 1964, Roger Frey led the prosecution of the use of the monokini, describing it as: "a public offense against the sense of decency, punishable according to article 330 of the penal code. Consequently, the police chiefs must employ the services of the police so that the women who wear this bathing suit in public places are prosecuted." At St. Tropez on the French Riviera, where toplessness later became the norm, the mayor ordered police to ban toplessness and to watch over the beach via helicopter.
Jean-Luc Godard, a founding mover of French New Wave cinema, incorporated monokini footage shot by Jacques Rozier in Riviera into his film A Married Woman, but it was edited out by the censors. A few defended Gernreich's design. Fashion designers Geraldine Stutz, president of Henri Bendel, said, "I only wish I were young enough to be one of the pioneers myself." Carol Bjorkman, a columnist at Women's Wear-Daily's wrote, "What's the matter with the front? After all, it is here to stay, and it is awfully nice being a girl."
In the 1960s, the monokini influenced the sexual revolution by emphasizing a woman's personal freedom of dress, even when her attire was provocative and exposed more skin than had been the norm during the more conservative 1950s. Quickly renamed a "topless swimsuit", the design was never successful in the United States, although the issue of allowing both genders equal exposure above the waist has been raised as a feminist issue from time to time.
Some fashion designers continue to produce a variety of monokini or topless swimsuits that women can wear in private settings or in places where topless swimsuits are allowed. But most current designs labeled as a monokini, unlike the original design, are one-piece swimsuits that cover both women's breasts and bottom. The designs typically include large cut-outs on the sides, back, or front. The cutouts are connected with varying fabrics, including mesh, chain, and other materials to link the top and bottom sections together. From the back the monokini will appear to look like a two-piece swimsuit. The appearance may not be functional but aesthetic. Some are designed with a g-string style back and others are designed for full coverage.
In popular culture
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