The Origins Of The Miss America Bikini Category

Bring out the champagne cocktails and don your favorite itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini, because Sept. 13 marks the night of the Miss America 2016 competition. If you're anything like me, though, you may be asking yourself: When did the bikini category of Miss America start? I mean, just picture your stereotypical Miss America contestant. I'm willing to bet most people instantly conjure up an image of an immaculately preened woman dressed in heels and a brightly colored bikini. But that, my friend, is a big question to ask.

As many avid Miss America super-fans will know, Miss America began as a swimsuit competition between eight contestants held in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1921, gradually beginning to include formalwear and competitor talent acts as its popularity increased. The pageant was met with mixed reactions during the Great Depression, with suggestions that it prompted loose morals. It wasn't until the Parisian engineer Louis Reard and fashion designer Jacques Heim designed the modern bikini in 1946 that the pageant world really began to be divided.

The 1946 Miss America contest made a point of issuing contestants matching bikinis designed to clearly show their stomachs. Following public backlash from Roman Catholic protesters, however, the competition then dropped the two-piece from its lit of acceptable swimwear in 1947, replacing the previous year's standard issue bikinis with the more modest (and frankly ridiculously itchy looking) cable-knit swimsuit. Those were notoriously so uncomfortable that they were affectionately nicknamed "bulletproof vests."

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Around this time, the first Miss World Contest was also met with controversy, as 1951's Swedish winner Kiki Hakansson's crowning in a bikini led to competing countries with religious backgrounds threatening to withdraw delegates. Pope Pius XII even declared the swimsuit "sinful." In fact, Hakansson remains to this day the first and only Miss World contestant to be crowned in a bikini. Following this uproar, the poor bikini disappeared from the pageant world completely, with protestors in the '70s and '80s commenting that the Miss World and Miss America swimsuit contests were degrading to women.

This continued all the way until 1994, when The Miss America Organization asked Miss America viewers to vote on whether to drop the swimsuit round of the contest entirely. The vast majority voted to keep it, and from there, a domino effect of gradually relaxed attitudes began. In 1997, 77 years after the first Miss America contest, the 51 contestant were for the first time allowed to choose their own swimsuits, with two contestants choosing to don bikinis. This led to Erika Kauffmann representing Hawaii, winning the "briefest bikini of all" award and, consequently, the swimsuit round in its entirety.

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Since the end of the 20th century, the bikini has become one of the most popular beachwear outfits worn around the globe, which research associate Beth Dincuff Charleston at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art attributes to "a social leap, involving heightened body consciousness, moral concerns, and social attitudes." But boy, has it been one heck of a journey to get here.