By the time an item of clothing finds its way to Costco, you can bet it's been around for many fashion cycles. So although I pride myself on my au-courantitude, I was surprised on a recent visit to a nearby Costco to discover massive quantities of a garment I'd never heard of: the skirtini.
For the similarly clueless, a skirtini is a modest two-piece swimsuit consisting of a tank top and a skirted bottom. Here's a visual cue (from Lands' End):
In my defense, I will say that I pay little attention to swimsuit trends. That's because I am in that infinitesimal minority of American women for whom the purchase of a swimsuit is utterly angst-free. Indeed, for all my fashion mania I spend more time comparing goggle designs than I do worrying about my swimsuits. My excuse: for 17 years I swam on a masters swim team, and I still swim four or five miles a week in a pool or San Francisco Bay. Ergo, my needs are ridiculously basic: I buy Speedo one-piece racing suits, size 34, preferably in the flyback or recordbreaker style, from online stores like Swim Outlet or Sierra Trading Post. (Speedo is the only brand that fits my long torso, size 34 always works, and Speedo's Endurance fabric really, truly resists the ravages of chlorine.) The first time I try a suit on is when I'm ready to go into the water. I would never (a) pay more than $70 for a suit, (b) buy a suit with bra cups, ruffles, a skirt, or a halterneck, or (c) do anything except swim or kayak in a swimsuit.
But, as I said, I'm in the minority.
What caught my attention about the skirtini, aside from its appalling matronliness, was, naturally, its name. It's clearly a blend of "skirt" and the suffix "-ini," from "bikini"--except there's nothing bikiniesque about it. I began thinking about how we got from bikini to skirtini. Here's a little historical-sartorial-lexical summary.
In the beginning, there was the bikini. (Really the beginning: there are drawings of women in skimpy two-piece swimsuits in paintings from fourth-century [C.E.] Sicily.) The modern bikini was invented in 1946 by Louis Réard, a French automotive engineer who was running his mother's lingerie business. The Bikini atoll in the Pacific Ocean had recently been in the news because of nuclear-bomb tests there, and Réard had one of those once-in-a-century Eureka! moments: why not name his atom-size swimwear after the test site?
Bikini proved to be the sort of instantly "sticky" name every marketer dreams of. (Too bad Réard didn't think to trademark it.) Its consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel construction is easy to pronounce in most languages. The "bi-" prefix reminded people--however spuriously--that the suit was a two-piece, and the "-ini" suffix lent itself, in English anyway, to associations with "teeny." Musical and cinematic tributes to the bikini soon followed. (For comprehensive cultural histories, see Everything Bikini and "Bikini Waxing," from the 1997 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.)
Here is the bikini as we know it today, dramatically reduced from its original form (if the 1946 version was "atomic," this one would be "quarkic"):
The first bikini spinoff, linguistically speaking, arrived in 1964, when Austrian-born fashion designer Rudi Gernreich created a worldwide scandal with his invention of a garment he dubbed the monokini. (There are occasional references to the suit as a "unikini.") It was the first back-formation from bikini, and the first time the -kini suffix stood in for "swimsuit." Made of black wool knit, the monokini had two thin straps that both exposed and framed the wearer's breasts. Although Gernreich claimed he designed the suit as conceptual art rather than as marketable swimwear, he did sell about 3,000 units at $24 each (expensive at the time). Gernreich went on to develop the pubikini--which had a window that revealed the wearer's pubic hair--and the much more widely accepted No-Bra Bra, which became a best-seller for Warner's in 1972.
Topless swimsuits never did catch on, at least in North America, but the monokini name survives in a swimsuit style that retains the V-shaped straps of the original but employs them to (barely) cover the breasts. The result looks complicated, uncomfortable, and, frankly, hideous.
Once -kini became a free-floating suffix, it began attaching itself to other swimsuit styles. There is, for example, something called a microkini that is too NSFW to depict here. Go forth and Google, if you wish.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the tankini, which came along (I'm guessing here; these trends are tough to document) sometime in the 1990s. At least that's when I remember first seeing it, but as I've already demonstrated, I'm an unreliable witness. The tankini combines a tank top with a bikini bottom; the advantage is supposedly that one can buy each piece in a different size if one desires. As a neologism, tankini is rather elegant: the k of tank blends seamlessly with the -kini suffix. Many tankinis qualify as what is often called Momwear; this version, from Newport News, probably does not:
Finally, out on the true cutting edge of fashion and neologism, we have the Burqini®™ (yes, they use both symbols), created by Ahiida, the Australian retailer of "dynamic swimwear & sportswear for todays [sic] Muslim female."
Available in slim, modest, and "active" fit (the slim fit is depicted here), the Burqini--coined from the head-covering, body-shrouding burqa and the shameless bikini of the infidel dogs--is said to be "high performance" and "quick drying." Like tankini, burqini (sometimes spelled burkini) smoothly blends the k sounds of two words. In the process, though, the original meaning of bikini--tiny, provocative, flesh-baring swimsuit--is completely lost.
As it is with skirtini. Here we've dropped the k of -kini and created a word that sounds less like swimwear and more like one of the innumerable new cocktail concoctions inspired by martini: the appletini (or, as we say in Silicon Valley, the iTini), the okratini, the bacontini, the mantini (man-word alert: beer substitutes for vermouth). (Martini list here.)
In fact, unless I'm terribly mistaken, the skirtini should really be called a skortini, from that skirt-shorts combo that no one, not even lady golf professionals, should ever be caught wearing. Oh, let's hope there are little shorts under the skirtini. Otherwise we'd have a kiltini.
About the post title: "Mother, may I go out to swim?"/ "Yes, my darling daughter./ Put on a suit and you'll look cute/ But don't go near the water." It's the variation of this lyric that I'm most familiar with.