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The Bikini Has a Scandalously Controversial History


Modern women take the “bikini” style of swimwear for granted. With the latest designs down to a couple Band-aid and postage stamp size pieces of brightly colored fabric, with some neon dyed dental floss to tie them together, it’s hard to imagine that the first to wear them were often arrested for indecent exposure.

The Bikini was a big deal

The bikini bathing suit exploded onto the fashion design scene like a nuclear bomb. Literally. The first of the modern style two-piece suits had it’s roots in war time scarcity. The marketing departments of the two competing pioneer designers were out to cash in on the latest atom bomb tests.

The controversial fashion revolution began on July 5, 1946. That’s when French designer Louis Réard unveiled his daring design “at the Piscine Molitor, a popular swimming pool in Paris.” His wasn’t the first of the same basic design but it became the last word in swimwear. A lot like when people think “tissue” they say “Kleenex.

Two piece suits made an appearance in the 1930’s but were a lot more modest. Navels were not something women were comfortable showing. The originals were basically “a halter top and shorts.


When World War II made fabric scarce, the skirt panel and any other “superfluous” material was first to go. Because the coastlines were all under attack and heavily defended, there wasn’t much demand for beachwear during the war. When it ended, the tables turned forever and the Bikini was born. Before it though, was the “atom.

The very first “world’s smallest bathing suit” was prototyped by Jacques Heim. He called his the “atom.” That being the smallest particle of matter known to man at the time.

In early July, 1946, Réard bested him with his “bikini,” inspired “by a news-making U.S. atomic test that took place off the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean earlier that week.” His design was described as “basically a bra top and two inverted triangles of cloth connected by string.


First modeled by a stripper

Réard billed his version as “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit.” He had to get “Micheline Bernardini, an exotic dancer at the Casino de Paris, who had no qualms about appearing nearly nude in public,” to model it for him.

The bikini was a hit, especially among men, and Bernardini received some 50,000 fan letters.” His factory went into overtime production.

It wasn’t long before the bikini started making legal waves, “causing a sensation along the Mediterranean coast. Spain and Italy passed measures prohibiting bikinis on public beaches.

Grumbling from the public eventually convinced uptight officials to come into the twentieth century. They “later capitulated to the changing times when the swimsuit grew into a mainstay of European beaches in the 1950s.

One of the big selling points, even in “prudish” America, was the advertising claim a Bikini wasn’t the real deal unless “it could be pulled through a wedding ring.

By the 1960’s, “a new emphasis on youthful liberation brought the swimsuit en masse 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 teenage ‘beach blanket‘ movies of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon.” The rest, as they say, is history.

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Written by Mark Megahan

Mark Megahan is a resident of Morristown, Arizona and aficionado of the finer things in life.

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