The Gidget Effect: When Surf Bikinis Hit the Mainstream

Published: 07th March 2012
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Today, surf bikinis are accepted as a standard part of modern surfwear. But like many other aspects of surfing fashion and equipment, it wasn't until the late 1950's and early 1960's that they became more widely known and accepted in the greater public consciousness. Many surfing historians agree that it was the book and film combo Gidget that helped propel surfing from a fringe activity in sunny coastal communities to a standard ingredient of American youth culture.

The story of Gidget is based on a real person - a teenage girl named Kathy Kohner, who broke convention with the rest of her teenage female peers by avidly surfing on the beaches of Malibu in the mid-to-late 50's. Her father saw a compelling narrative in his daughter's life, and so he put her story to words, publishing a 1957 novel that did reasonably well in the popular press. But it took the release of the first Gidget movie in 1959 to really thrust the motifs, language, and styles of surfing into the mainstream.

The film Gidget encapsulated the themes and images that made surfing so popular at the time. Scenes of carefree, lusty, spirited teenagers resonated with the population of baby boomers who were just coming of age. The bright colors and floral designs of surfing bikinis and board shorts broke the staid, conservative clothing styles of the 1950's. The fact little actual surfing was captured onscreen was besides the point; it was the ideas and feelings behind surfing that became a nationwide obsession.

The lasting effect of the Gidget brand is that it introduced surfing's fashion, music and leisurely lifestyle as a standard ingredient of mainstream youth culture. Young people across the country, long strangers to the sight of surf bikinis, now became entranced in the look and feel of the world of surfing. Greater amounts of surf shops opened in areas outside of California, like the Gulf Coast in Texas and Florida, and more people started actually giving the sport a try.

Granted, there was skepticism from the surfers who'd been practicing their art for years. Some reacted negatively, and some acted aloof of the trend, but lack of acceptance from the established surfing scene didn't stop the force of nature that the Gidget brand had become. In the remainder of the 1960's Gidget was featured in seven more books, two more movies, and a TV sitcom - although the latter lasted for only a single season. It also inspired a wave of knockoffs, and theaters were flooded with surf- and beach-themed movies for almost a decade. Later decades saw rehashes of the Gidget character, with made-for-TV movies, and a second shot at a TV series. Whether the later flood of imitators and extensions of the Gidget brand were a cash-in on a passing trend or a true reflection of surfing's cultural sway is debatable.

Even though Gidget was at times hokey and overplayed, and even if it led to an oversaturation of surfing culture, it's interesting to interpret Gidget as a lasting symbol of freshness and independence. The real young woman who inspired the fictional Gidget character, while not the first female surfer, was still something of a pioneer. Some might even say her insistence at surfing when few young females were doing so was an act of rebellion, a manifestation of the countercultural and innovative tendencies of surfers as a whole.


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Surf bikinis were thrust into American youth culture of the 1950's and 60's thanks to the movie 'Gidget'. The influence of this cultural artifact lasts to this day.

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