Recently I have been researching the history of Spain during the Franco era for a book that I have been commissioned to write and I came across a rather beguiling story concerning bikinis in Spain – a subject, no doubt, on many people’s minds!
Firstly, did you know that bikinis were probably first worn by the Romans and that mosaics show women wearing them around the first centuries after the birth of Christ? This is perhaps not too surprising, as the Romans did have some pretty dissolute periods.
However, the bikini did not really appear again until a canny French engineer (Loius Lépard) reinvented them in 1946. I suspect that Lépard’s first bikini was far from skimpy but it must have been a tremendous shock, given that bathing suits of the time just about concealed a woman’s body completely. In fact, the name ‘bikini’ gives some clue about how controversial they were.
The name ‘bikini’ comes from the Bikini Atoll, which is a tiny collection of islands in the Pacific. One of these (Bikini Island itself) was extensively used for nuclear weapons tests by the US (from 1946 – 1958). Indeed, the first nuclear test was undertaken just before Lépard’s creation came on the market and this clearly prompted Lépard to call his new form of beachwear a bikini. The concept being that anyone wearing a bikini would set off a chain reaction like a nuclear weapon!
Certainly, Lépard seems to have been an astute PR man and his invention did not take long to become popular. Indeed, by the early 1950s many women (particularly from North European countries) were insistent on wearing them (or at least their menfolk were keen!)
Needless to say, in 1946 Spain was under the firm and repressive hand of General Franco, a deeply conservative and religious dictator, who held Spain in his grip until he died in 1975 (after 33 years of continuous rule). For him, of course, the bikini must have seemed like an invention by the devil himself and there was no question of women being allowed to flaunt themselves in them on Spanish beaches.
The trouble, for Franco, was that by the late 1940s Spain’s economy was in a diabolical state. Indeed, the country was in the grip of ‘Los Años de Hambre’ (The Years of Hunger) during which the Spanish population suffered dreadfully. However, help was at hand in the form of foreign tourism, which Franco finally saw as one of the solutions to Spain’s economic problems and one that could bring into the country vast amounts of desperately needed foreign currency.
In fact, after the Second World War, Spain had been receiving ever more tourists, year on year, who were mainly coming to the Mediterranean areas for their summer holidays. One of these places was Benidorm and it was there that the Mayor of the time, a Señor Zaragoza, decided (in 1952) to pass a local edict allowing the wearing of bikinis on Benidorm beach. This, he thought, would entice more North Europeans to come to his town, as opposed to them going to more ‘relaxed’ resorts in France or elsewhere.
Señor Zaragoza’s edict, however, immediately caused a furore and the poor Mayor found himself facing excommunication by the Bishop of Valencia! Facing eternal damnation, Señor Zaragoza knew that he had to do something and that ‘something’ was obviously to appeal to a Higher Authority.
So, climbing aboard his Vespa and, in an action reminiscent of an Ealing comedy, Zaragoza rode the nine hour journey to Madrid to ask General Franco for help. At the time, this must have been a very daring action and it says much for Señor Zaragosa that he even went to see Franco – whose deep conservatism and support for the Catholic Church was well known.
In any event, ever the realist, Franco supported Señor Zaragoza and let it be known to the authorities (via his wife, evidently) that he agreed to bikinis being worn on Benidorm beach. Señor Zaragoza avoided excommunication; other coastal towns swiftly approved the bikini and the Spanish tourist industry continued its long boom, without hindrance.
Of course, it is amazing how times change. Now, Spain has nudist beaches – and topless bathing is hardly a cause for comment. Franco must be spinning in his grave…