In my never-ending quest to see that you, my T.I.H. readers are kept aware of the most important events in history on any given day I bring you this: on today’s date, July 5 in 1946 – 70 years ago – French designer Louis Reard introduced a revealing two-piece swimsuit at the Piscine Molitor, a popular swimming pool in Paris. Reard named his new product the “Bikini” after Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean wherein Atomic Bomb testing was being conducted. Why it is that the designer chose to link a small women’s bathing suit with the ultimate weapon of mass destruction seems an odd question to which I may have a possible partial answer by the end of this posting. We’ll see… but I make no promises.
What EXACTLY IS a Bikini?
Well, just in case any of you out there are somehow unclear on this point we will turn to “Wikipedia” for a proper definition:
“A bikini is usually a women’s abbreviated two-piece swimsuit with a bra top for the chest and underwear cut below the navel. The basic design is simple: two triangles of fabric on top cover the woman’s breasts and two triangles of fabric on the bottom cover the groin in front and the buttocks in back. The size of a bikini bottom can range from full pelvic coverage to a revealing thong or G-string design.” So there you have it – two triangles on top and two (or maybe just one) on the bottom.
The Bikini Developed as a Wartime Measure
Ok, well that may be stretching the truth a bit, wartime needs did play a role in this story. In Europe of the 1930’s women had been wearing a
kind of two-piece bathing suit all along which was made up of a halter top and shorts. But very little of the midriff was exposed, and none of the navel was visible. Over here in America a fairly tame version of the two piece began appearing during World War II. The war brought on fabric shortages and the rationing of their use requiring the removal of the skirt panel and other unnecessary bits of material. This version looked something like the suit Betty Grable is wearing above. But heavily fortified coastlines pretty much put a stop to developments in ladies swimwear like everything else not related directly with the war.
The War Ends and Things Cut Loose
So the war ended in 1945. So beach lovers in 1946 were looking forward getting back to the beach for the first time in years. And some, including a pair of French fashion designers were really ready to cut loose. Fabric shortages due to the war were still in effect, so in an
attempt to revive sale of ladies swimsuits, two French designers – Jacques Heim and Louis Réard (above), launched a new and quite daring design which took advantage of the lingering fabric shortage simply by using less fabric, and leaving more skin on display than had ever been tried before. Heim called his version the “Atome” named after the world’s smallest particle – the Atom – calling his creation “the smallest bathing suit in the world”. Whereas Reard went a step further introducing his creation as “smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world.” At a mere 30 inches of fabric a fair claim, and naming it the“Bikini”… in his words: “like the [atom] bomb, the bikini is small and devastating”. Reard at first thought the Bikini would horrify the world perhaps with this name reference, but he stuck to it.
The Bikini’s Reception is Shock and Awe
Whatever Reard’s confidence in his design, he ran into trouble conveying that to others, as no professional model was willing to
appear in this (nearly) show-all design. So he wound up hiring one Micheline Bernardini (above), a nude dancer at the Casino de Paris, who had no trouble at with the idea of strutting her stuff nearly nude in public. Reard was so certain of the newspaper headlines his suit would generate, that he made the suit with newspaper design printed across it. and he had x 2″his model holding a 2 x 2″ box into which the suit would fit. Naturally the suit was a tremendous hit critically with men who sent Reard about 50,000 fan letters. But the staid French newspaper “Le Figaro” kept all the fuss in prospective: “People were craving the simple pleasures of the sea and the sun. For women, wearing a bikini signaled a kind of second liberation. There was really nothing sexual about this. It was instead a celebration of freedom and a return to the joys in life.”
The Bikini Is Slow to Catch On
The Bikini was a great success in France, and soon began making appearances along the Mediterranean and Spanish coasts. Although some attempts were made to outlaw it in some such spots, eventually local officials bowed to the popular tide. But in spite of it’s initial success in France, sales were sluggish, and by the 1950’s Reard was back to making the more traditional one-piece design. And in America, buyers resisted the bikini through the 1950’s. But once the 1960’s arrived with its care-free youth movement in the air the bikini finally began to catch on with it being featured in the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach party movies.
And since then the bikini has become a fashion mainstay ever since, although it seems to be getting progressively smaller all the time to a degree that might have made even Micheline Bernardini blush… well a little bit anyway….