A few things you need to know about the bikini, if you don’t already. The first is that its invention, if you could call it that, came partly from a utilitarian impulse, which was to enable a tan far more efficient than what the current swimsuit design of the time allowed. I say partly because what the French engineer Louis Réard did to carry out his advocacy was to expose the midriff and the effect he desired and knew it would achieve from doing so was no less than a metaphorical parallel to what regularly transpired at the place he took its name from, the infamous atoll where the atom bomb was tested. And the explosion of controversy the bikini sent down the fashion world out of the gate was, in many ways, atomic.
Word had it that strippers needed to be hired to model the offensive items because models simply refused to, becoming the first instance a bikini would connote an affront to notions of decency and conservative values. Many quarters still think of the bikini in roughly the same way Oppenheimer saw the Bomb, as becoming death and a destroyer of worlds, for the way it objectifies women. And they wouldn’t be entirely wrong either. There’s a reason the Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated sells the way it does.
Historically and above everything else, a sense of utility has always been the raison d’être of swimsuits, but, even in its earliest, frumpiest incarnations—where the flash of skin it revealed was just that, a flash—it was a utility that was unavoidably attached to social and sexual taboos; the more half-naked swimsuits made us, the more like underwear they became, the more lines of taboo it crossed. “Half-naked” being the operative term, of course, because beyond its functions as wardrobe, if not necessarily fashion, bikinis are ultimately instruments of provocation, but it operated on a level of seduction separate, and arguably more poetic and elegant, than just flat out taking your clothes off. Which is not to say that nudity has no higher agency, but leaving a little to the imagination, regardless of how little, does play into a juicier ambivalence. Sue Lyon in Kubrick’s Lolita may not have the same smoldering physique as Maribel Verdu in Cuaron’s Y Tu Mamá También, but they both stoked that same ambivalence.
All of this preliminary bluster is meant to dovetail into what criterion I had behind my picks of actresses who rocked a bikini at the movies, out of how it avoids many instances of pure titillation and even pure fashion statement by favoring, for the most part, those that instead nuanced it. To put it in context, no one necessarily remembers the women of Joey Gosiengfiao’s Temptation Island or Mie Kitahara in Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit for the cut of their swimsuits.
The pop-cultural consensus tends to zero in on Ursula Andres from the James Bond film Dr. No as the iconic quintessence of how to rock a bikini at the movies, the way she emerges from the water, the way she disarms Connery when she does, the way she singlehandedly gave birth to the Bond Girl in the process. It’s a predominantly Western consensus, sure, but it isn’t difficult to agree. Ursula’s Honey Ryder was full-bodied, in every sense of the term, and her emergence from the water was almost empowering. And you could say as much about Pam Grier’s own bikini moment in Jack Hill’s Coffy, if only for the number of hard asses she would kick not just for the rest of the film but for most of her career.
Here are more women we love:
Having said all that, I did give over to my hormones when it comes to my favorite bikini moment, which, it turns out, is also most of the world’s favorite, at least starting with those of us who saw it for the first time, on either a shitty VHS or a pristine laserdisc. (Hormones are also responsible for my giving a slot to Carrie Fisher in Return of the Jedi). You can argue that the way Phoebe Cates emerged from the pool in Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High was not as momentous nor as cinematic as Ursula’s but the way she walked toward us in slow motion in that red bikini, smiling at us as if we were the dazzling specimen of manliness we imagined ourselves to be in our heads, was enough provocation a grotty teenager with no dint of political correctness nor sexual maturity could ever need or want. This was pure titillation. But this was also seduction at its most cunning. The little she left to our imaginations, stoking that juicy ambivalence like an expert, was sufficient to keep us going for months. Then she takes the top off. And before we can recover from the shock, or even make sense of what’s happening, the film cuts to the next scene. You could hear the sound of teenage heads exploding for miles.
Ludivine Sagnier (Swimming Pool)
Swimming Pool is up there with that other François Ozon masterpiece Under the Sand, with which it shares the theme of imagination as a refuge for trauma. But Sagnier’s many swimsuit moments here aren’t so much iconic as they were articulations of her character and how seductive a dangerous mind can be.
Phoebe Cates (Fast Times at Ridgemont High)
Call it teenage hormonal nostalgia. But, for at least two generations of grotty teenage geeks, there really was no moment in popular cinema that fulfilled all our voyeur perversions while making us realize how impotent and powerless we were quite like Phoebe coming out of the pool in slow motion and doing what she did. Except maybe Number 9.
Sue Lyon (Lolita) and Maribel Verdu (Y Tu Mamá También)
If only for the way they used the bikini to worm their ways into the hearts of men half their ages.
Keira Knightley (Atonement)
That shot of Keira perched provocatively on the diving board was iconic in a fashion sense, too, suffused as it was with that old world glamour the rest of the film was after, but only sort of nailed, but for this scene. Technically, not a bikini, but who will notice anyway?
Mie Kitahara (Crazed Fruit) and Bambi Arambulo, Azenith Briones and Jennifer Cortez (Temptation Island)
Lumped together, despite being as diametrically opposed as two films can be, if only because of how their characters transcend their relatively prudish swimsuit moments.
Pam Grier (Coffy)
From Coffy to Jackie Brown, Grier was a one-woman will to power, with enough smolder and badass to make putting her in a bikini unnecessary. But still they did. Boom.
Carrie Fischer (Return of the Jedi)
Technically not a swimsuit but the way Slave Girl Leia stoked the pervy flames of geeks the world over was a hormonal phenomenon in and of itself.
Ursula Andress (Dr. No)
Halle Berry was obviously channeling Ursula Andress when she similarly emerged from the ocean in Die Another Day. Only that sort of lightning rarely strikes twice. The Bond people really should’ve known better. Stupid to omit, impossible to eclipse.
This piece originally came out in Issue 19 2015 of Vault magazine.