The Bikini turns 60!
1946 to 2006: 60 Years of Bikini Bathing Beauties!
The Fashion eZine - Swimwear

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The History of the Bikini

In the overall history of swimsuits, it seems almost strange that the bikini, a piece of swimwear design that is so entrenched in our culture, should be less than 60 years old. From its introduction to the world in 1946, however, to the latest trends and designs of 2006, the bikini has made much of its brief, illustrious history.

While the two-piece swimsuit we know of today as the bikini has only been marketed and sold as the “bikini” for 60 years, the fashion that inspired it is nearly as old as civilization itself. Years ago, archaeologists discovered Minoan wall paintings from 1600 B.C. and Roman mosaics from 300 A.D. that depict the bikini. Six years after the introduction of the bikini to the modern world, one Italian archaeologist was stunned to uncover wall paintings in the gymnasium of a traditional Sicilian villa that portray eight female gymnasts in diaper-like panties and strapless, bandeau-style tops. Clearly, the history of the bikini begins much earlier than 1946. Still, it is the explosive, modern debut of the bikini in the year 1946 and subsequent modifications of the bikini that truly define the popular two-piece swimsuit.

The bikini was invented and launched almost simultaneously by two French fashion designers: Jacques Heim and Louis Reard. Heim was a swimsuit designer who had created a two-piece suit to be sold in his beach shop in Cannes. He marketed the swimsuit as the “Atome,” (named for its small size and meant to be compared with the atom, the smallest particle of matter yet known). To market his new innovation, Heim hired skywriters to advertise his new, scandalously tiny swimsuit.

The same summer of 1946 in which Heim was introducing his “Atome,” Louis Reard was creating his own similar, two-piece swimsuit. He named and marketed his swimsuit as the bikini, proclaiming that it was “smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world.” Reard christened his swimsuit the bikini in honor of post-WWII, experimental atomic bombs being detonated in the South Pacific, near the Bikini Reef. The bikini swimsuit was supposed to have caused the same earth-shattering reaction among those who viewed it as was inspired by the rising mushroom clouds of atomic bombs. The bikini soon superseded the “Atome” as the official appellation of the two-piece swimsuit.

The bikini received its first official induction into swimwear fashion on July 5, 1946 when French model Micheline Bernardini paraded onto the runway in it at a poolside fashion show in Paris. A number of American correspondents responsible for reporting the fashion show were both shocked and titillated by the model’s skimpy attire. While many Americans believed the bikini was simply too scandalous for virtuous American women to adopt, the bikini would make its debut into American fashion only one year later.

The original bikinis of the 1940s and 1950s were fairly modest in their coverage, as compared to current standards. Bottoms were cut above the navel, and tops provided full coverage of the bust. Despite this rather modest beginning, the bikini would undergo several transformations as the decades progressed. Fashion designers practiced with many varieties and innovations for the swimsuit, including a bikini top with attached propellers, a suit made entirely of red hair, and a rather discomforting version constructed of porcupine quills. In the 1940s and 1950s, the bikini was so small that it could easily be packed into a matchbook, but the suit would undergo even more drastic shrinkage as the years went on.

In the 1970s, following a shocking sexual revolution in the United States, fashion designers revamped the bikini to be even more revealing and titillating. The string bikinis of the 1970s exposed the navel for the first time by fitting the bottoms just on the hips. The top left little to the imagination, providing only minimal bra-style coverage. In the 1980s, the popular thong bikini was introduced into American fashion. Fashion designers claimed the origin of the thong bikini to be from the traditional clothing of Amazonian tribal groups in Brazil. The thong bikini offered the scantiest coverage yet imagined in the rear of the suit.

In the 1990s and 2000s, fashion designers have continued to revamp the old bikini and have innovated new styles for the two-piece swimsuit. While the thong bikini and string bikini have only grown in popularity, the tankini has recently been added to the growing selection of bikini swimwear.

In its short, modern history of 60 years, the bikini has managed to repeatedly shock the world with its ever more revealing nature. Nonetheless, the history of the bikini is hardly finished. Fashion designers will, without a doubt, continue to experiment with the “smallest bathing suit in the world.”

It took fifteen years for the bikini to be accepted in the United States. In 1951 bikinis were banned from the Miss World Contest. In 1957, however, Brigitte Bardot's bikini in And God Created Woman created a market for the swimwear in the US, and in 1960, Brian Hyland's pop song "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" inspired a bikini-buying spree. Finally the bikini caught on, and by 1963, the movie Beach Party, starring Annette Funicello (emphatically not in a bikini, by mentor Walt Disney's personal request) and Frankie Avalon, led a wave of films that made the bikini a pop-culture symbol.

In Malta bikinis took time to be introduced. In the 1960s the police fended off Bishop Michael Gonzi's request to ban bikini clad tourists following fear of compromising Malta as a tourist destination. Malta Labour Party girls felt protected to put on bikinis during beach parties but this was unacceptable by those supporting the Nationalist Party.

People who are familiar with the history of Bikini Atoll—particularly opponents of nuclear proliferation—may find the etymology and use of the word "bikini" for a garment as inappropriate, as its tongue-in-cheek "explosive" reputation effectively reduces the significance of a serious historic humanitarian crisis—one that still influences the politics of the Marshall Islands—to a mere popular culture sex symbol in the minds of most people. The term two-piece is considered a neutral alternative.

The Bikini Atoll Explosion.

Many magazines market themselves by placing a woman in a bikini on the cover. Because of the influence of the media, women try to lose weight before the summer so they can have the ideal "bikini body." These weight loss goals are often unrealistic and unhealthy in their means and result. The image of the bikini in the media sometimes brings about eating disorders in people striving to have the "perfect" body.

Louis Reard, a French automobile engineer who designed the bikini swimsuit died in a hospital in 1983. He was 87 years old.

Mr. Reard produced the bikini in 1946 after joining his mother's clothing firm. ''He named the swimsuit a bikini, thinking of the nuclear explosions at Bikini atoll around that time,'' his wife, Michelle, said in an interview.

Mr. Reard was taken to the hospital after breaking his leg in a fall a month ago. The couple moved to Lausanne from France in 1980.

Model Micheline Bernardini wearing the first bikini in 1946.

See Also

1950s Fashion
Men's Hats

The Bikini Atoll Explosion.
An itsy-bitsy history of the teeny weeny bikini 1946-2006: from the voluptuous screen stars of yesteryear to today's toned and buff surfer girls, a retrospective of our bodies and the bikini - Essential Guide to Summer

By Marisa Cohen

It's hard to imagine you can attribute so much meaning to so little fabric, but it's true -- the bikini has spent the last 57 years showing off the female body in all its glory, from the hourglass figures of the '50s to the athletic abs of the '90s and beyond. "Since the beginning, the bikini has represented freedom, fun and a sense of liberation," says New York City-based swimsuit designer Malia Mills.

That sense of fun was just what French engineer Louis Reard decided his countrymen needed after the grim years of World War II. In 1946 he had the simple but scandalous idea of splitting the swimsuit in two. Needing a name as explosive as his creation, Reard borrowed "bikini" from the Pacific atoll where the United States was testing early atomic bombs. The bikini wasn't immediately embraced -- in fact, Reard had to hire a nude dancer to debut it, since no reputable French fashion model would.

Scandalous though it was, the sexy suit slowly infiltrated American beaches and pool parties, and by the late '50s and '60s the soft, curvy figures of Marilyn Monroe, Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot were the idealized bikini bodies. In 1964 the bikini made its first appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated; that same year, mod designer Rudi Gernreich took the two-piece concept one step further with his topless "monokini." A minor hit in Europe, the R-rated suit never made a big splash on American shores.

By the '70s, American women were catching up with the Europeans' more daring attitudes. At the same time, swimsuit designers were discovering Lycra, a stretch fiber that allowed them to stitch tinier pieces of fabric, yet still provide support. The result: The string bikini -- with more string than fabric -- was born. The daring young women of Rio de Janeiro and St-Tropez went even further -- forgoing all rear-view coverage to show off their assets in the "Tanga" (what we Americans know as the thong).

From Curves to Crunches

The fitness boom of the '80s led to one of the biggest leaps in the evolution of the bikini, Mills observes: "The leg line became superhigh, the front was superlow, and the straps were superthin. That was the era of aerobics and Jane Fonda, and women really wanted to show off their bodies."

But as skin-cancer awareness grew and a sleeker, simpler aesthetic defined fashion in the '90s, the skimpy bikini practically dropped off the radar. By that time, the voluptuous figure that looked so good in tiny triangles was out; athletic, toned bodies became the ideal, as epitomized by surf star Malia Jones, who appeared on Shape's June 1997 cover wearing a halter-top two-piece built for rough water.

Today, bikinis are back with vengeance: Just witness Halle Berry's bikini moment in the 2002 James Bond film Die Another Day, an homage to her Bond Girl predecessor, Ursula Andress, in 1962's Dr. No. This time around, though, there's no one ideal "bikini figure." Mills says that women of all shapes are discovering that two pieces just fit better, no matter their body shape. "We find that very few women come into our stores and say, '1 can't wear a two-piece,'" says Mills, who sells tops and bottoms separately to provide the perfect fit. "Women today are very liberated in how they feel about their bodies and comfortable with who they are, and they want to show it!"

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