Rudi Gernreich’s topless suit—what he called the “monokini”—shocked audiences when it was first introduced in 1964. It featured a brief that extended halfway up the midriff, just below the breasts, and was held up with a halter neck tie. Promoting a topless design at this time signified a break from the conservative, wholesome dressing of the 1950s, and sporting the look was the beach version of locker-room preening for the photogenic, fashionable, and fabulous—actresses and models first carried the topless torch on the French Riviera and it remains the standard there today.
A photograph of Peggy Moffitt wearing the Gernreich suit is featured alongside a mannequin version in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Model as Muse exhibit this summer, where it is displayed just few galleries down from the nude marble torsos by Greek and Roman sculptors. The nudity in the ancient art hardly seems as shocking as the partial nudity of the Gernreich suit, which looks scandalous and titillating the way all things that both conceal and reveal do. Maybe it’s because we can better imagine the act of undressing when it’s already halfway there, as though the suit represents an unfinished and infinite strip show.
View Our Gallery Of Monokinis From Miami Swim Fashion Week
The modern monokini looks a bit different today than Gernreich’s version. In fact, monokini is a misnomer for these suits, which are more of a cross between a bikini and a one-piece, usually with large cut-outs, or a two-piece held together by a centered strip of fabric. But despite the extra fabric, it is by no means a nun’s habit—you’re most likely to find monokinis in stripper stores or e-shops, and it has a way of making the wearer look less covered up, not more. There’s something bondage-like about those bandage suits, which give the visual impression of something about to burst or unravel—the bathing suit gives way to the baring suit. In the swimsuit family, the monokini is the cousin who put herself through college as a pole dancer.
Perhaps the monokini is a more exciting swimwear option because we’re just desensitized to the sight of babes in bikinis. Or, at least, you would be if you were one of the 12,000 who attended the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Swim in Miami, which wrapped up its fifth-annual showing on July 20. Amid a sea of tiny two-piece suits tied around pointy pelvic bones and bountiful bosoms that clamored for our attention with punchy tropical prints, gaudy gold hardware, ruffles or fringe were a handful of slutty-meets-sophisticated monokinis from ANK by Mirla Sabino, Aqua di Lara, Bohéme Boutiques, Cia.Marítima, Luli Fama, Mara Hoffman, Poko Pano, Red Carter and V Del Sol. Reinventing the bikini with something boring like beads isn’t half as interesting as redesigning the entire silhouette the way a monokini does. Now, if we could only redesign our bodies for swimsuit season half as easily.
Renata Espinosa is the New York editor of Fashion Wire Daily. She is also the co-founder of impressionistic fashion and art blog TheNuNu and a sometimes backup dancer for "The Anna Copa Cabanna Show."