Yellow Polka Dot Bikini

“She was afraid to come out of the locker” is the famous comic lament of a lady in a tiny bikini, who regrets wearing it to go swimming the moment she steps out of the locker room.

The hapless woman is nervous about leaving the beach hut changing room when she realises her swimwear might be a little too revealing, but things get worse after she braves the shore and runs into the sea – as she’s then scared to come out again when her bikini gets wet!

So she stays in the water, feeling colder and colder, until she starts turning blue – the pinnacle of a disastrous day on the beach.

© Michael Flippo / Adobe Stock

For anyone who was around in the 1960s, this scenario may sound familiar. The story of the girl who wore an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini is the novelty hit by pop singer Brian Hyland.

The American artist launched his career with the ditty, which made number one in the US and Canada and the top ten across Europe. It was also credited with spurring an increase in bikini sales in an era when two-piece swimsuits were considered too risqué for the majority of women.

Bikini origins

Despite the reticence of beach-goers to reveal too much at the start of the decade of flower power and free love, the history books tell us that the bikini was being worn 1,700 years ago, in Ancient Rome, although as sporting garb, rather than for sunbathing.

A mosaic was discovered, depicting a bevy of bikini-clad young ladies wearing bandeau-style bra tops, at the Villa Romana del Casale – a majestic Roman villa located 3km from the Sicilian town of Piazza Armerina.

The mosaic is commonly called the Chamber of the Ten Maidens, while scholars have named it The Coronation of the Winner. It was discovered in 1959 by the Italian archaeologist, Gino Vinicio Gentili.

As one of many mosaics from the 4th century AD that have been preserved, it shows the women taking part in sporting activities, including ball games, weight-lifting, running and discus throwing.

With mosaic floors covering around 3,500 square metres, the site contains the world’s largest collection of Roman mosaics and has been given UNESCO World Heritage Site status. No-one knows the identity of the bikini-clad sportswomen in the ancient mosaic, in which a woman wearing a toga is seen presenting the winner with a crown and victor’s palm.

Bubblegum pop

Hyland was only 16 years old when his famous Yellow Polka Dot Bikini song hit the charts in June 1960, making him an international star. Born in Queens, New York City, in November 1943, the teenager had sung in the church choir and learned guitar and clarinet as a child.

His first band was a harmony group, the Delfis, which he founded at the age of 14, although they didn’t win a recording contract. Then, at 16, he was signed as a solo artist by Kapp Records. He produced what became known as “bubblegum pop” – an upbeat genre designed to appeal to teenagers.

Releasing two singles which were minor commercial hits, Rosemary in late 1959, followed by Four Little Heels, his career was launched in spectacular fashion in the summer of 1960, when he released Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.

Written by the established song writing duo of Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss, it was an instant hit, selling almost one million copies within two months and more than two million copies in total.

Lyrics

The lyrics told the story of the unfortunate bikini-clad woman through three verses. In the first verse, she’s afraid to leave the locker room, where she has changed into a yellow polka dot bikini.

In the second verse, she makes it as far as the beach but sits down wrapped in her blanket, as she feels too self-conscious to move. Finally, in the third verse, she runs into the ocean, but is then too scared to come out again, eventually turning blue with cold.

While Hyland sings the main lyrics, vocalist Trudy Packer can he heard prior to each chorus saying, “Two, three, four … stick around, we’ll tell you more,” followed by, “Tell the people what she wore.”

Then, Hyland bursts into the jolly and upbeat chorus, singing, “It was an itsy bitsy, teenie weenie, yellow polka-dot bikini that she wore for the first time today.” The bikini had been a talking point on the beach because it was so tiny, leading to other beach-goers gossiping about its wearer and prompting her immediate regret at having worn it!

In 1960, bikinis were only for the brave, as more demure one-piece swimsuits were the mainstream fashion of the day, but the song was such a huge hit that it sparked a boom in bikini sales. It’s credited with having contributed to the widespread consumer acceptance of the bikini.

During the early 1960s, a string of surf movies then made the sight of women in tiny bikinis in public more familiar and socially acceptable.

Bikini evolution

There was a long interval between the classical bikinis worn for sports and the modern bikini worn mainly for sunbathing. Outdoor swimming was discouraged in the UK for centuries, as society believed exposing the body in public was immoral for women.

In the 18th century, the bathing gown was introduced. It was an ankle-length, loose-fitting, chemise-type gown, made of flannel or wool. Designed so that a lady’s decency and modesty were maintained, it was heavy and impractical for swimming.

In the early 19th century, the swimsuit had been modified slightly. A knee-length swimsuit top with sleeves was combined with ankle-length trousers. However, this too was impractical.

In the second half of the 19th century, the French began wearing sleeveless tops that were only hip-length and the trousers got gradually shorter until they were knee-length.

Arrested for indecency

By the early 1900s, women were wearing woollen dress-type garments for the beach that evolved into modern swimwear over the years. However, there was still an outcry if it was considered decency standards had been breached.

The Australian professional swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested while swimming in the sea in Boston in the United States in 1907. Her “crime” was wearing a tight-fitting, one-piece, sleeveless, knitted swimsuit that ended in long, tight shorts.

She was arrested for showing her legs in public after she stepped out on Revere Beach. Outraged fellow bathers called the police and Kellerman was hauled off under public decency charges. Although the was thoroughly covered and revealing very little by today’s standards, the community behaved as though she was naked!

The Australian swimmer (who held all the women’s swimming records in 1905) was also a vaudeville star, who performed an unusual act featuring an underwater ballet and high dives. She was known as the Original Mermaid.

She swam three-quarters of the way across the English Channel in the world record time of 10.5 hours in 1905. In 1908, she broke the world records for the 100-yard dash and the 26-mile swim from Dover to Ramsgate. She often raced against men and won!

Despite her professional swimmer status, she was still arrested while training for a 13-mile race in Boston. She later called her arrest a “mistake” and criticised women’s “beach costumes” that included corsets, dresses, shoes and head gear that she likened to the antimacassars put over chair backs to keep them clean!

Despite her “indecency” charge, Kellerman, who died in 1975 at the age of 88, spoke in later life of her dislike for the bikini, claiming it “showed too much” and looked “ugly” – she preferred the “unbroken line” of one-piece swimsuits.

20th-century swimwear

After women’s swimming was introduced at the 1912 Olympic Games, designer Carl Jantzen made the first functional two-piece swimwear in 1913, comprising a close-fitting top with short sleeves with equally tight-fitting shorts.

By the 1930s, the sleeves had disappeared and the outfit became more streamlined, thanks to the invention latex and nylon, which replaced wool.

The early two-piece bathing suits were nothing like today’s bikinis. They were tailored garments, often with a skirt panel for decency. Although a bare midriff was revealed, the swimsuit shorts were high-waisted, so hardly any bare skin was on display.

In the late 1940s, the first two-piece swimsuit with a lower waistband was created by French fashion designer Jacques Heim. However, it still covered the navel, despite being called the Atome, relating to the smallest known particle of matter.

Sales of two-piece swimsuits didn’t pick up, as women preferred the traditional one-piece. In the 1950s, the renowned American swimsuit mogul, Fred Cole, who owned Cole of California, said he had nothing but “scorn” for the French bikini.

Swinging Sixties

Finally, in the Swinging Sixties, the bikini suddenly surged in popularity, with Hyland’s song credited with sparking its popularity in 1960. Marketers said it prompted a “bikini-buying spree”.

It also heralded the birth of many trendy teenage beach movies, such as Beach Party in 1963, Muscle Beach Party in 1964 and Beach Blanket Bingo in 1965. All of them depicted young women wearing bikinis and frolicking unashamed on the beach, having a wonderful time.

Looking back at the unfortunate young woman in the Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, she was a little ahead of her time. Had she waited a few more years, she would have positively strutted out of the water in her thoroughly modern fashion garment!

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