On this day in 1946, French designer Louis Reard unveils a daring two-piece swimsuit at the Piscine Molitor, a popular swimming pool in Paris. Parisian showgirl Micheline Bernardini modeled the new fashion, which Reard brilliantly dubbed “bikini,” inspired by a news-making U.S. atomic test that took place off the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean earlier that week.
The first “modern” swimsuits of the late 19th century concealed most of the body: women wore bloomers, black stockings, and a dress with short sleeves and skirt; men wore a dark-colored, one-piece, sleeveless garment reaching to the ankles or knees. By the early 20th century, however, men had begun to wear shorts without a top, and as early as 1900 Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer, wore a loose, one-piece wool bathing suit that by about 1910 became generally acceptable for the public. A clinging one-piece swimsuit for women was introduced in France after World War I, and other swimsuit accessories were abandoned.
From the early 1930’s, stylish resorts were frequented by women wearing midriff-baring two-piece bathing suits consisting of a bra and modest, shorts-like trunks. Concurrently, these styles were being seen on the silver screen courtesy of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties and, in a sarong version, Dorothy Lamour in the 1937 film Hurricane. Though these ensembles were alluring and sexy, they were not necessarily scandalous.
Enter rivals mechanical engineer Louis Réard and fashion designer Jacques Heim, who both claim to be the first to launch the bikini on the French Riviera in Cannes in the summer of 1946. The design, two triangles on top, positioned to cover the bosom and two triangles, one front, one back, on the bottom, was basic. Though Réard patented his version and Heim is now remembered as a couturier and an early supporter of sportswear, there is much debate over who “invented” the bikini.
A likely scenario is that both gentlemen had seen the local jeunes filles of Cannes sunning themselves in the most abbreviated beach costumes in order to achieve the bronze of the newly fashionable suntan. The bathers had pushed the fashion to the acceptable social limit, and both businessmen took advantage of this show of youthful daring. Officially, the first time the bikini appeared in a fashion event was at the Paris poolside premier this very day, nearly 75 years ago.
The difference between the bikini and its two-piece predecessor was brevity. Simply defined, the bikini is an abbreviated two-piece swimsuit with a bra top and panties cut below the navel. Broadly defined, the bikini represented a social leap involving body consciousness, moral concerns, and sexual attitudes. Indeed, it was President Harry Truman’s attitude toward the showy use of atomic fission that helped blow up the bikini, though no historian can confirm Bess Truman ever donning the garment.
While consumers were certainly curious about the scandalously small amount of fabric that comprised the bikini, initial sales of the swimsuit were slow. Many Americans were shocked by its scantiness, and the bikini was even outlawed as a form of public attire in many U.S. cities. Catalina, a leading bathing suit manufacturer, inserted many Hollywood stars, such as Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe, in their advertisements to gently arouse interest and acceptability. However, it would be nearly 20 years, at the dawning of the sexual and moral revolution in the late 1960’s, before American women truly embraced the bikini.
After that, there would be no turning back; American women–and men–began a love affair with the bikini that has lasted to this day. And it is here our not-so-itsy-bitsy lesson endeth.