On July 5, 1946, along the edges of the crowded Piscine Molitor in Paris, a French automotive engineer named Louis Réard unveiled his newest creation to the world. It was so risqué only a nude dancer would show it. So earth-shaking, it was named after the atomic bomb. So guaranteed to make headlines, it was printed like newspaper. And so, 70 years ago, the bikini was born.
The story starts in the spring of 1946, when French furrier and fashion designer Jacques Heim released his new two-piece bathing suit the "Atome," which he named after the smallest known particle at the time. Considering some designers were pushing a return to the full swimming dress that season (complete with sailor collar and, in at least one case, a white tailored blazer), a glimpse of midriff was indeed a revolution. But if the Atome was the "world's smallest bathing suit," as advertised, it didn't hold the record for long. Within weeks, Louis Réard responded with his "Bikini."
Réard's bathing suit was named after the atomic bomb exploded at Bikini Atoll a few days earlier, on July 1, 1946. (The bomb itself was named Gilda, after a Rita Hayworth character.) Even by modern standards, the bikini was an eyeful. One paper called it "four triangles of nothing," a string number with barely enough newsprint fabric to run a headline.
Réard boasted his suit revealed "everything about a girl except her mother's maiden name" and was "just enough to protect the property without spoiling the view." He also took aim directly at his competitor Jacques Heim, saying the Reard bikini "split the atom" and was "smaller than the world's smallest bathing suit."
Casino de Paris dancer Micheline Bernardini premiered the bikini in glorious fashion before the crowds at the Molitor, exuberantly exposing the suit as though it was the final uncovering in a burlesque. Judging from the tan lines on her backside, however, even Bernardini was used to more conservative coverage.
The first bikini was less than 30 square inches of cloth and Réard was unwavering on the skimpiness of the suit, saying it wasn't a true bikini unless you could slip it through a wedding ring. (Which, if you've ever tried to pull a bathing suit through a wedding ring, turns out to be quite small.) Despite its generous southern exposure in the rear, the biggest revolution of the bikini was actually in its uncovering of the navel, which remained quite a scandalous body region in the 1940s.
But the world wasn't quite ready for so little cloth, and so much flesh. In the years that followed, the bikini was banned by Hollywood studios and on many beaches; prohibited in Italy, Spain and Portugal; denounced in Belgium and Australia. More than a decade later, in 1957, Modern Girl magazine still proclaimed it was "hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini, since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing."
Of course, tact and decency have always been somewhat subjective, and the bikini's popularity was growing steadily around the world.
Asked in 1959 if she had any thoughts on women who wanted to try a bikini, Anne Cole, vice-president of the Cole of California swimwear company, said: "More power to them, sweetie." Esquire magazine, unsurprisingly an early fan of the style, hailed Louis Réard as a hero.
Meanwhile, Réard continued tinkering with his designs, looking for the next big small thing. Among his attempts was the "Flying Saucers," a suit with two "independent saucers" attached to the breasts with no visible means of support. There was a chameleon suit that changed colour, and the "Under My Skin" suit, which promised to "give a suntan featuring a loved one's name written on the stomach."
Réard made bikinis out of fur, feathers, waxed plywood strips, and supple aluminum. He made one of woven gold that could be used as a radio antenna, and another of fabric specially treated so you could light matches against it. In 1958, he unveiled a floating, phosphorescent suit that "swims by itself!" because of cork sewed into the seams. He promised the suit could be "parked on the nearest wave and easily found even in pitch darkness," an innovation for late-night skinny dippers.
Courtesy Everett Collection
And while none of the specialized suits caught on, by the 1960s, the bikini was finally having its moment in the sun. Soon there was Brigitte Bardot and beach movies. The bikini became the subject of a popular song, and a word in the dictionary. The view poolside would never be the same again.
Speaking to a reporter in 1974, Réard flipped through a book of newspaper clippings and reflected on his creation.
"In 1946, France had just come out of the war and people had need to live again," he said. "I felt I had to design something that would make people understand that life can start over and be beautiful."
Louis Réard died in Switzerland in the fall of 1984, at the end of summer bathing suit season. His wife said he refused to eat, and finally "refused to live anymore."
So, happy 70th birthday to the bikini, a reminder, maybe, that life is beautiful.
If you want to celebrate with a few inches of cloth and string – or some feathers and aluminum – more power to you, sweetie.
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