One night at church, as usual, we were joking and jostling with each other, boisterous as always. Brother Bill shushed us. He said, “I am going to say an opening prayer!” and we automatically bowed our heads and heard the first words of a typical Mormon prayer: “Our Father in Heaven...” I also remember the words, “Let these young men hear the words I say and heed them, O Lord.”
Amen. The next thing out of his mouth was uncharacteristic of the usually happy Brother Bill: “Boys, I am convinced the end is nigh. The end of the world is coming. And soon.” That got our attention. “I suppose you have all heard of the topless bathing suit.” It was having its fifteen minutes of fame. Yes, we had heard of it, but none of us had seen it. Newspapers could not run pictures because it was, well, topless. But we speculated in school. I heard a girl scoff, then say, “It couldn’t be pretty.” Pretty? I thought. What is prettier than a pair of boobs?
The suit is also known as a monokini.
Brother Bill was quite exercised about what the topless bathing suit portended. We got a whole lecture. What I remember was, one, the very existence of the topless bathing suit would lead us teenage boys into acts of sin: depravity and debauchery, and two, it was an indicator to him that the end of times was upon us. “It could be any minute, Jesus will come down from heaven, and the world as we know it will come to an end.” Holy cow.
In some ways the Mormons are a doomsday cult. They would not describe themselves that way, but their official name says it: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s the “Latter-day” part that is relevant to my story. Their own founder, Joseph Smith, claimed it was the church to belong to when Jesus came back, and that time was soon. (Of course, that was 180 years ago.)
In 1964 I was wobbling in my reception to the message of the Mormon church. If I had a reason for believing, it was because I believed older people were smarter than me. I believed there were people who knew things I did not know, like when the world would end. For various reasons, a year later I had made a decision about the church. Belief had vanished. One Sunday — in May 1965, 50 years ago this month — I walked out of my local Mormon ward and told myself, “I am never going back.” Over the past year since Brother Bill had lectured us, I had decided people like Brother Bill were spreading their religious fears and superstitious paranoia. There was some concern from my friends and adults like Brother Bill about me becoming inactive, but no one forced me to reconsider. They gave me the choice and I made it. .
After a while I stopped waking up in a cold sweat because I thought the devil was tempting me with lascivious thoughts into deeds that would cast me into a deep pit of hell. Nowadays I don’t think about it at all. If everybody who had lascivious thoughts were cast into hell, there would be a very sparse group of people in heaven.
I stopped believing there were people who knew when Jesus was coming back. I never worried about what Jesus would think of the topless bathing suit.
Peggy Moffitt’s iconic 1964 picture, modeling Gernreich’s creation for Women’s Wear Daily.
Anytime something shocking or challenging to long-held beliefs occurs the apocalyptic types among us invoke the end of times. Probably when dress hems rose abve the ankle in the 1920s, religious leaders spoke to some young men, told them the end was near, and the arrival of Jesus was imminent.
Pictures formerly hidden from us of the topless bathing suit, created by designer Rudi Gernreich, can be found on the Internet. Gernreich was born in 1922 and died in 1985, presumably by natural causes and not from a lightning bolt thrown by God. Gernreich liked to challenge traditional ideas; he was a fashion iconoclast. But his designs, while still provocative, don’t rise to the level of world-ending.
An original Gernreich topless bathing suit was sold by auction house Christie’s this year for $2,075.