In a man’s world of the 1940s, scientists engaged in a desperate race to create the biggest blast with the smallest amount of material. Its detonation would shake civilization to its core, challenging notions of morality and humanity. Hydrogen bombs and world mass destruction? No. The goal of these learned men with the precision and singularity of mind of nuclear scientists: create the world’s smallest beachwear, the bikini.
Women would no longer have to roll up their sleeves or their shorts on the beaches of Nice and San Tropez. In the mind of the 1940s engineer, man was doing womankind a serious favor: the elimination of tan lines. In trade, they would create a fine summer view.
French designer Jacques Heim first experimented with a two-piece design based on the French Polynesian “pareo”, a style of beach wrap. His design was the parent of the bikini, named Atome because it used the smallest particles of fabric to cover his models.
But it took the French automotive engineer turned fashion designer Louis Réard to create a media event. Monsieur Réard was no stranger to fashion, helping to run his mother‘s shoe shop Les Folies Bergères in Paris. Like any meticulous engineer of the day, he experimented with many suit designs before minimizing the elegant style to less than 30 square centimeters of spaghetti strap and fabric triangles cut high to show off the derrière and Venus’ best asset, the navel.
Monsieur Réard tested different names. None satisfied his desire to create an explosive promotion. And then it detonated in his mind. He remembered the American bomb tests in 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. The Bikini name sounded exotic, feminine, and reminiscent of the French Polynesian islands.
The original bikini was made of cotton cloth with a splashy newspaper headline print, part of Réard’s clever promotion. He coupled this with the suit’s debut on this day in 1946 (It would take the more modest U.S. until the 1960s to allow this daring suit on our shores) at a beauty contest at Paris’s famous Piscine Molitar. Only the follies dancer Micheline Bernardini of the Casino de Paris had the daring and experience to smile proudly and model the suit for the event. All other models refused. Réard even had a skywriter advertise at his events, writing, “Plus petit que le maillot de bain le plus petit au monde!“ (Smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit!)
Monsieur Réard stated that a two-piece bathing suit is not a bikini unless it can be pulled through a wedding ring. His design was so popular that his shop remained profitable in Paris until 1984.
Whether it’s a bikini, a t-back, a v-back, a c-back, a thong, or a nostalgic resurgence of the monokini, this summer sunglass-shielded eyes will gaze appreciatively while self-made models absorb the recommended daily allowance of ultraviolet energy. We can all thank science, thank the men in lab coats, and thank Monsieur Louis Réard for his hard work, his sense of promotion, and his French sensibility to create beauty out of weapons of mass destruction.