Today is Bikini Day. On July 5, 1946, French designer Louis Réard unveiled a two-piece swimsuit at a swimming pool in Paris.
He named it the “bikini” after the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, where the U.S. had conducted an atomic bomb test only five days earlier. He believed his swimsuit would cause an “explosive commercial and cultural reaction.”
Two-piece outfits were not new. In 1960, while excavating the ruins of a fourth-century Roman villa, archaeologists discovered a mural depicting ten women they are informally referred to as “the bikini girls.” There’s no evidence to suggest the clothing was used for swimming.
In the 1930s, European women began wearing two-piece bathing suits—a halter top and shorts—that bared a small bit of midriff and covered the navel entirely. During World War II, fabric rationing led to similar designs in the U.S.
In 1946, Réard wasn’t the only French designer determined to capitalize on jubilant postwar feelings of liberation. Jacques Heim re-introduced the “Atome,” a suit he’d designed in 1932, when exposing the belly button was still considered scandalous. He released it in June 1946, advertising it as “the world’s smallest bathing suit.”
Réard’s swimsuit was smaller, constructed of a little bra top, two triangular pieces of fabric and string. He planned to unveil it on July 5 at the Piscine Molitor pool, promoting it as “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit.”
One issue threatened to derail Réard’s plan: He couldn’t find a professional model who would agree to wear the skimpy bikini. His solution turned out to be a stroke of marketing genius. He hired exotic dancer Micheline Bernardini, who had no problem with appearing nearly nude in public.
To show how confident he was of the headlines his bikini would generate, he printed newspaper type across the suit’s material. The bikini was a hit and so was Bernardini, who reportedly received 50,000 fan letters.
In less than ten years, the bikini became a familiar sight on beaches all over Europe. By the 1960s, it was popping up everywhere in the U.S. as well. Seventy years after its introduction, the design continues to dominate the market. Réard summed up its sexy allure when he stated: “A bikini is not a bikini unless it can be pulled through a wedding ring.”
Happy Bikini Day!