Origin Stories: The Bikini

Photo Courtesy of Kristy Pirone

As summer is quickly approaching, the bathing suit aisles have once again begun to be fully stocked with all shapes, styles and colors of bathing suits. And perhaps the most pervasive of all is the bikini.

Whether you are in the group of women who love and look forward to wearing bikinis or the group that shys away from the bikini in favor of one-pieces, the bikini is undeniably one of the most common forms of swimwear today. But this was definitely not always the case.

In fact, when the bikini was first unveiled at at fashion show in Paris in 1946, it was viewed as so provocative that the French models refused to wear it. The designer (Louis Reard) actually had to enlist an exotic dancer (Micheline Bernardini) to model the swimsuit design.

Why was it so controversial?

Interestingly, it was not because it was the first two-piece swimsuit. The first two piece swimsuits were already introduced in the 1930s and had gained widespread acceptance. By the early 1940s, they had been adopted across the United States, in part due to World War II rations on fabric. However, the innovation was that the bikini swimsuit showed the navel, which was viewed as so scandalous at the time, that it was actually against the Hollywood Hays production codes (the rules for decency that Hollywood agreed to adopt).

And why the name?

In case you’ve ever wondered where the name came from, it’s from an island called the Bikini Atoll, which the US had started doing nuclear bomb tests on only a few days before the bathing suit design was first modeled.

Interestingly, he was not the only french designer to name a smaller bathing suit after the nuclear bomb that summer. Earlier in the summer, Jacques Heim had unveiled his new bathing suit, which was the smallest at the time, and he called his “le atom” after the atomic bombs of the age. Louis Reard followed that with his much smaller and more controversial “le bikini” later in the summer, with a name fittingly more scandalous than Jacques Heim’s as well.

Brigitte Bardot, Cannes Film Festival 1953. Photo by LIDO/SIPA.

As weird as it seems today that both designers decided to name their designs after the nuclear bombs, in the summer of 1946, it made perfect sense. That summer was right after the end of World War II, and the nuclear bombs were seen as a new and modern invention. At the same time these swimsuit designs were being modeled, terms like “bombshell” were first gaining traction and being used to describe beautiful women. To them, it seemed fitting to name their new, modern swimsuits, designed for these beautiful “bombshells” after the invention as well.

If you’re interested in reading more about this historic fashion invention (or seeing some old bathing suit photos), you should read the links below!

Kaitlyn Dietlin
FAST Blogger

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