Alexandra Kimball's grandmother in a bikini on the beach

#tbt to Alexandra Kimball’s grandmother Elizabeth  (Photo: Courtesy Alexandra Kimball)

Of the many stories my grandmother loved to share, it’s the one about wearing the first bikini in Toronto that got the most play. Early in the 1950s she heard about a two-piece swimsuit that was only available in Europe. She was a food writer for a local newspaper at the time, and her beat was Toronto, but somehow she schemed up way to make it over to the continent, pitching a story about Spanish food and wrangling a travel budget from her editor.

Within days of returning from her trip, she proudly disrobed to show off her bikinied form on Cherry Beach. The first bikini in Toronto! Spying her exposed belly, a wholesome young couple hustled their children out of view.

While my friends’ grandmothers kept lists of shortbread recipes, mine kept a list of firsts like that one.

Some of her boasts were verifiable—and remarkable. She was the first female student to edit The Varsity, University of Toronto’s student newspaper; and later, the first female account manager at an advertising agency in Toronto. Around that time, she was also the first woman to race a sailboat at the Toronto Sailing and Canoe Club.

But she also recorded a list of Fashion Firsts, which everyone in my family thought were bullshit.

She claimed to have been the first woman in Toronto to go “braless in the summer”—how could she even know something like that? Did she survey every woman in the city? Or go around feeling up girls like some tiny war bride version of the FBI (that’s Female Body Inspector, for those of you who didn’t watch MTV’s Spring Break in the early ’00s)?

She said she popularized “Cuban heels with linen pants,” and other combinations of mid-20th-century trends that frankly anyone could have, and likely did have, in their wardrobes.

While I don’t know much about Toronto fashion at that time, I would bet my life that the honour of First Bikini Babe went to a fashion model, not an aging freelance food writer from Belleville, Ont. I mentally filed the tale under “Further Grandmother Craziness,” right alongside the fact that she thought plain raw cucumber was a delightful snack if sliced thinly enough.

When I reached my 20s, my grandmother started giving me some of her old stuff. By then she was in her 90s, and despite regular workouts had lost all hope of ever fitting back into the slim linen pants and Cuban heels of her youth. Perhaps, I’d be interested? On every visit to her east Toronto home, musty boxes emerged from her cluttered closet. I’d “look smashing” in this suede miniskirt, she’d say (it was rotted); this brooch of two monkeys “is darling” (that one actually was pretty cool).

Oh,” she said, wistfully, reaching the bottom of one box, one day. She held up a minuscule piece of black silk trimmed in raggedy lace. “Did I ever tell you about this? I do believe I invented the first thong.”

I’d heard it before and hadn’t believed her. Unfolding the silk in my hand, I could see that this was an ancient pair of handmade underwear, with the back cut into distinctive butt-baring crescents.

“In the ’30s, black underpinnings were considered very daring,” my grandmother began, reciting a story I’d heard since childhood. “But I was very daring indeed, and ventured to craft some of my own. The real stroke of genius came when I thought, why not bring the back in… so that you can’t see the line through your skirt?”

It might have been the first thong. I wasn’t sure. I knew it was special though and stashed it wrapped in tissue at the bottom of my own (much less daring) underwear drawer for years, occasionally taking it out to stare at it in wonder, with something that felt effervescent, like faith. I lost the thong when I moved from my apartment into a house with my husband. I remember upending the drawer and watching it slip from its tissue sheath and disintegrate on my bedroom floor into pieces that looked like chunky black ash.

My grandmother died the next month. I considered writing the thong story into her eulogy, but thought better of it. Like the bikini story, I still wasn’t sure if it was true. I was a journalist too now, and I didn’t want to publicly fact-check my grandmother. Instead I shared how she took me to a nude drawing class when I was nine, so I could see the “natural female form.”

I was always slightly embarrassed by my grandmother, with her dragonfly-green eyeshadow and series of younger boyfriends. My friends had grandmothers who wore bedazzled sweatsuits and permed their hair into tight grey curls. When I was a teenager, I tried to excuse my grandmother’s eccentricities by calling her a “feminist,” but it never sat right. I knew she despised the term. She wanted to be able to have jobs and adventures like a man, but her delight in femininity—especially the liberated, sexual version of it that came to Canada after the war—was at odds with what she saw as the dour, gender-busting ethos of the early women’s movement.

She said she didn’t identify much with other women of her generation, whom she found insipid and boring. “A potato of a woman,” she’d often say, of a certain bosomy, domestic type. “Is there any way to decline the status of matriarch?” she wrote to a friend after the birth of her first grandchild. “Shall I don my housecoat and take up crochet?” She couldn’t have been a feminist because she didn’t care about the freedom of other women, at least not the kind who willingly chose to bake and birth instead of read or travel. Whatever explanation there was for my grandmother’s uniqueness, it was beyond ideology.

I found many of her letters in a box she willed to me after her death, labelled “writing.” This was another lie; the box had some writing—clips of her published articles, typed drafts of short stories—but it was mostly correspondence and old photos. It was in this box that I found a photo, dated 1957, of my grandmother in a pin-up girl pose on a beach. Her short hair was perfectly curled, her skin tan, her features fixed in the satisfied cat-like expression I remember flashing across her face every time she told me one of her firsts. She was wearing a strapless two-piece floral bathing suit. I did the math: She would have been 47 at the time.

I can’t find any archival material detailing when Toronto women started wearing bikinis to the beach, but they certainly would have been a rarity in 1954—at least a decade before the miniskirt made its debut. It’s unlikely that this was the famous Spanish bikini: European swimwear was designed in much skimpier styles to expose the navel. But I did find a letter she wrote to her lover, a married professor, from 1952, postmarked from Barcelona, Spain. She said she was there writing an article about tapas.

What did it say about my grandmother that she wanted to be the sort of woman who recorded so many firsts? What did her appetite for provoking others with her body, with her daringness, make her, exactly? These qualities alienated her from her generation of women and soured her on 20th-century feminism. But her brand of me-first audacity would have been embraced by the newest wave of feminism, the type that embraces the sexed-up confidence of women like Dolly Parton and Beyoncé. By current standards, my grandmother wouldn’t be an oddity, but a #BOSSQUEEN. If she wasn’t a first, she was certainly—and admirably—before her time.

Now I keep the bikini photo on my work desk. A confident woman stares back at me from the shadowy background, her expression self-satisfied, challenging. I’ll never know if this is the photo of the first person to wear a bikini in Toronto. But I believe my grandmother would be happy to know I wonder.

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