Even if you have never watched the “beach movies” of the 1960s, you have probably heard of some of the cast. What you may not know is how the genre is a representation of an important point in history. The popularity of bikinis, beach towels and Rock-n-Roll didn’t cause the shift in our attitudes but it is a good illustration. The story of “Beach Blanket Bingo” was the last of those movies and America would never be the same.
Until the early 1900s, beachwear was nearly as revealing as ordinary clothing – that is, “not at all.” In actuality, few people had enough leisure time to loll upon the beach. In 1907, an Australian swimmer, Annette Kellerman was arrested on a Boston beach for wearing a “scandalous” one-piece swimsuit – a form-fitting, leg-baring tank suit. Though there were two-piece garments, similar to what would become the “bikini,” they were largely limited to the cabaret or movie stars and did not become a part of public life until WWII when a fabric shortage prompted a reduction of cloth used for women’s swimwear.
The end of that war brought about multiple changes. Modernization of factories, return of soldiers to the workforce and shifting roles in society meant that people had more time for leisure and a willingness to use it at places like the beach. More time spent wearing less clothing at the beach prompted most to bring blankets to put between them and the sand.
Much of society resisted but by the late 1950s, the bikini was not a rare sight, particularly amongst the youth who had grown up with leisure time. The song, Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini and Beach Party, the first of the beach movies featuring Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello and a host of youngsters in bathing suits, both debuted in 1960. Beachwear, beach towels, and beach music were all standard fare for teens.
The last successful beach movie was filmed in 1965, but during this time Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Jane Russell became pinup girls, Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition had debuted and James Bond had arrived. Both ukulele-strumming Elvis and the Beach Boys faced the British Invasion and society moved on to another war with more to be scandalized than bare midriffs. The real story of Beach Blanket Bingo, the bikini, beach towels and rock music, is that it is an example of an end of one generation’s influence and a beginning of another.