Millions of men would come to be grateful that Frenchman Louis Réard, a car mechanic, had an unlikely sideline in the 1940s: he also looked after his mother’s lingerie boutique in Paris. And from there he created the bikini, which was unveiled on this day, July 5, 1946!
European women first began wearing two-piece bathing suits that consisted of a halter top and shorts in the 1930s, but only a sliver of the midriff was revealed and the navel was vigilantly covered.
In the United States, the two-piece made its appearance during World War II, when wartime rationing of fabric saw the removal of the skirt panel and other “superfluous material”. Meanwhile, in Europe, fortified coastlines and Allied invasions curtailed beach life during the war, and swimsuit development, like everything else non-military, was stopped.
It was 1946 when Western Europeans joyously greeted the first war-free summer in years, and French designers came up with fashions to match the liberated mood of the people. Thus, two French designers, Jacques Heim and Louis Réard, developed prototypes of the bikini. Heim called his the “atom” and advertised it as “the world’s smallest bathing suit.” However, Réard’s swimsuit, which was basically a bra top and two inverted triangles of cloth connected by string, was in fact significantly smaller, and he promoted his creation as “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit”. He thought the design would be “highly explosive” and, inspired by American atomic bomb tests that had started to take place off the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, he cheekily called his swimwear “bikini”.
In planning the debut of his new unusual swimsuit, Réard had trouble finding a professional model who would deign to wear the scandalously skimpy two-piece. So he turned to Micheline Bernardini, a 19-year-old exotic dancer at the Casino de Paris, who had no qualms about appearing nearly nude in public. The bikini was a hit (especially among men), and Micheline Bernardini received some 50,000 fan letters.
As a result, before long, bold young women in bikinis were causing a sensation along the Mediterranean coast. At first Spain and Italy passed measures prohibiting bikinis on public beaches but later capitulated to the changing times when the swimsuit grew into a mainstay of European beaches in the 1950s. A significant breakthrough come in 1958 when Brigitte Bardot, the so-called “sex kitten” of the age, exploded onto cinema screens flaunting a bikini in her iconic film, “And God Created Woman”. Réard’s business soared, and in advertisements he kept the bikini mystique alive by declaring that a two-piece suit wasn’t a genuine bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.”
In prudish America, the bikini trend was successfully resisted until the early 1960s, when a new emphasis on youthful liberation brought the swimsuit en masse also to U.S. beaches. It was immortalized by the pop singer Brian Hyland, who sang “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini” in 1960, by the teen “beach blanket” movies of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, and by the California surfing culture celebrated by rock groups like the Beach Boys.
Louis Réard continued selling Bikini from his shop in Paris until 1980, and he died in 1984 at the age of 88. Since then, the popularity of the bikini has only continued to grow, until today.