Today In History: The Bikini Debuts

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Today was one of the most important days in the history of fashion. On July 5, 1946, the bikini debuted. The bikini was designed by Louis Reard, a French designer who named the two-piece swimsuit after the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb detonation that occurred that same week.

The swimsuit was modeled for the first time by Micheline Bernardini, at the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in Paris. The bikini wasn’t the first two-piece bathing suit to be worn in public. Since the 30’s, European women had been sporting two-piecers that were much less revealing. The tops were halter tops and the bottoms were shorts, covering the navel and leaving much more to the imagination.

Two-piece bathing suits were also worn in America, where fabric rationing during World War II made it somewhat of a necessity.

1946 was the first summer after the War ended. Reard’s two-piece bathing suit was the smallest ever manufactured, contrary to the advertising claims of “the atom,” his primary competition. Reard’s bikini was made of about 30 square inches of fabric, and was promoted as “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit.”

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It was obviously transgressive at the time, and Reard had difficulty finding a model who would participate. Micheline Bernardini was an exotic dancer at the Casnio de Paris. It turned out to be a good choice. Bernardini got about 50,000 fan letters after the photos of her in the bikini were published.

The bikini was a hit. Not everyone was happy about it. Italy and Spain issued injunctions against wearing bikinis in public. They held on for a while, until the prevailing pro-bikini tide got too strong in the 1950’s and they caved. Reard maintained his position of dominance in the bathing suit market through clever marketing tactics. He published ads claiming that a bathing suit wasn’t a real bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.” The wording and its subtext of extramarital sexiness was highly effective at keeping units moving.

The United States was significantly more conservative in its sexual mores than boho Europe. The bikini didn’t catch on stateside until the early part of the 1960’s. When the dam did break, it was a flood. The bikini was celebrated in popular culture, both in music and movies.

The bikini is now the standard women’s swimsuit. It’s difficult to imagine a time when public beaches weren’t awash in them. It’s also difficult to imagine it will ever be supplanted.

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