Bikini Swimsuit Is Introduced Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The most meager bathing suit yet, the bikini was exhibited for the first time by a French fashion model at a Parisian poolside fashion show, but the European fashion would not become popular on American beaches for at least a decade.

Summary of Event

Separately but nearly simultaneously, two daring French fashion designers released the tiny two-piece bathing suit that would become known as the bikini. During the summer of 1946, Jacques Heim, a couturier, designed a style of swimwear to be sold in his beach shop in Cannes. He called his new style the Atome because of its minuscule size and advertised it with a skywriting plane that spelled out his slogan “Atome—the world’s smallest bathing suit” in the sky over the crowded beaches in the south of France. This daring new beach attire began, then, as a very localized phenomenon, but it was not destined to remain that way for long. [kw]Bikini Swimsuit Is Introduced (July 5, 1946) [kw]Swimsuit Is Introduced, Bikini (July 5, 1946) Bikini (swimsuit) Fashion;bikini Bikini (swimsuit) Fashion;bikini [g]Europe;July 5, 1946: Bikini Swimsuit Is Introduced[01760] [g]France;July 5, 1946: Bikini Swimsuit Is Introduced[01760] [c]Fashion and design;July 5, 1946: Bikini Swimsuit Is Introduced[01760] Réard, Louis Heim, Jacques Bernardini, Micheline

Just three weeks later, Louis Réard, a mechanical engineer turned swimwear designer, hired his own skywriting aircraft in order to advertise his newest creation to sun worshipers basking along the same stretch of the French Riviera. With Réard’s slogan, “Bikini—smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world,” the tiny swimsuit was given the name by which it would soon be known throughout the world.

Although two-piece swimwear that exposed a little bit of the midriff was nothing new and had been seen on the beaches and in Hollywood since the mid-1930’s, no swimsuit had come close to revealing as much female flesh as Réard’s bikini. Seen for the first time at a poolside fashion show at the Piscine Molitor in Paris on July 5, 1946, the bikini caused a shock wave, especially among the American reporters who covered the fashion show for The International Herald Tribune. International Herald Tribune, The (periodical) That paper alone ran nine bylined stories on the bikini, thus introducing the concept of the tiny bathing suit to the American public with a definite undertone of amused disapproval. The lead story was written by bureau chief Tex O’Reilly O’Reilly, Tex , who reported that “all of a sudden, a blonde named Micheline Bernardini ambles out in what any dern fool could see was the smallest bathing suit in the world.”

When arranging for his bikini to be displayed in the fashion show, Réard had difficulty finding someone willing to exhibit his creation. Not one of the traditional French fashion models would consent to wear this first bikini, which exposed the wearer’s navel, back, and upper thigh. Consequently, Micheline Bernardini, a blond striptease dancer, was hired to parade around the pool in Réard’s swimwear.

The Herald Tribune correspondents did not take the bikini seriously, and neither would their readers for some time to come. The 1940’s American fashion writers would not soon come to accept the navel-exposing bikini and considered the fashion to be particularly suited to naughty European beachgoers rather than to their conservative American counterparts. For more than a decade, bikinis were strongly discouraged from American public beaches and banned by most private clubs. Only in the privacy of one’s own backyard could an American woman dare to wear the fashion that was being worn openly on beaches in France, Italy, Spain, and Brazil.

Réard never made public his reasons for calling the tiny swimwear creation a “bikini”; however, world events provide bikini enthusiasts with a likely theory as to the origin and popularity of the name. During the summer of 1946, the United States conducted a series of nuclear tests on a tiny atoll in the Pacific Ocean. These were the first nuclear bombs to be detonated since the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II and shocked the world. The rumors of these postwar nuclear tests caused a panic among some Parisians, who speculated that the tests might go out of control and cause a chain reaction that would destroy the world. When the bombs were set off, such fears proved to be unfounded, but one of the tiny islands, Bikini, gained a considerable notoriety as it was smashed by the explosions. Related theories abound that the label “bikini” became popular because of the devastating effects the fashion had on anyone who saw a woman wearing it. The bikini was a fashion bombshell, so to speak.

Although the bikini is thought of as a twentieth century phenomenon, it appears that such swimwear was merely reinvented during the twentieth century. In fact, Minoan wall paintings dating from 1600 b.c.e. are the earliest known evidence of women wearing bikini-type coverings. Other depictions of early bikini wearers were later found in 1952 by an Italian archaeologist excavating a luxurious fourth century c.e. Roman villa on the island of Sicily. In the villa’s gymnasium, a mosaic depicting eight female gymnasts, each wearing a diaper-like panty and a strapless bandeau, proved that bikinis were invented long before the 1946 Parisian poolside fashion show.


The bikini received plenty of media attention and stirred up enormous controversy in the fashion world, yet it remained marginal throughout the decade following its invention. In the United States, the bikini was initially little more than a symbol of the contrast between American conservatism and European liberalism. In the late 1950’s, however, the bikini became a catalyst for the liberalization of American beaches. The bikini did not make a sudden and dramatic entrance into popular culture, but it certainly was a means for the public and the media to test the likely degree of acceptance of such a challenge to American conservatism. Clues abound as to the bikini’s subtle incursion; a 1958 issue of Newsweek magazine reported that this variety of beachwear “had a record of bans and secret sales second only to Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” a reference to D. H. Lawrence’s controversial 1928 novel.

Boutique owners and major department stores stocked the two-piece bathing suit despite its risqué reputation, and much to their surprise, the bikinis sold each season and so were reordered for the next summer season. Against the predictions of the outraged swimsuit designers, the bikini did sell to the American populace, although it was not commonly seen in public swimming and sunning venues. At least two factors seem to have sustained the bikini throughout one of the more conservative periods in American history. First, there was a dramatic increase in the number of private swimming pools in the United States; the number rose from approximately twenty-five hundred in 1949 to more than eighty-seven thousand just ten years later. Women may not have been wearing their bikinis on the beaches, but they were wearing them in the privacy of their own backyards.

The second factor that may have sustained the bikini in the American market was the notable increase in international travel. As evidenced by the increase in the number of U.S. passport holders—from fewer than 25,000 in 1946 to more than 675,000 during the 1950’s—Americans were clearly enjoying their postwar prosperity. As international airlines flourished, more formerly landlocked Americans began to travel to the European beaches from which the bikini had emerged, and there they were exposed to the revealing fashion.

In the late 1950’s, a small but significant stamp of approval came when Harper’s Bazaar Harper’s Bazaar (periodical)[Harpers Bazaar] and Esquire published color photographs of America’s first supermodel, Suzy Parker Parker, Suzy , wearing a bikini. By 1960, wearing a bikini was akin to making a cultural statement. Diana Vreeland Vreeland, Diana , the fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, began advocating the demise of the one-piece and the success of the skimpy two-piece, equating fashion choice to attitude. “Bikini says to me the best things in life are free,” she wrote. “The world of the Bikini is the normal world, a world completely consumed by the elements. It makes me think of boats, of a lonely South African beach, of the pride Mediterranean folk have in their bodies. We city people forget that the elements take up more space than people, thank God.”

The summer of 1960 was a watershed one in the bikini’s acceptance. Although American designers leaned slightly toward more modest designs than the Europeans, the new decade provided the final impetus to dramatically break the monopoly of the one-piece swimsuit, and the bikini was seen for the first time as a popular choice. In July, 1963, Newsweek asserted that “the bikini, long the scarlet woman of the $200 million-a-year U.S. swimwear industry, is unmistakably moving toward respectability.”

Teenagers, whose figures were generally best suited to the minute fashion, created the largest demand for the bikini in the United States. The designers knew that these youths were still under the fashion thumb of their conservative parents and were quite innovative in creating the “convertible” or “modified” bikini. These two-piece novelties had drawstrings or bows on the sides of the bottoms and in the middle of the tops. If a teenage daughter wanted to appear modest when saying good-bye to her parents before her day at the beach, she could simply adjust the amount of skin exposed to a quite demure level. Once at the beach and out of sight of disapproving parents, she could readjust and display as much skin as she dared.

Largely because of Hollywood’s influence, during the 1960’s the bikini became a major cultural symbol of America’s youth. In 1960, the pop song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini” made the charts, and Where the Boys Are, Where the Boys Are (Levin) a film about college students on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, inaugurated a wave of beach films that would help entrench the bikini as the summer uniform of the teenaged girl.

Ever since the late nineteenth century, swimwear fashions have continually vacillated. Therefore, it is no surprise that each year since the success of the bikini, some designers have predicted that the fad, at last, is over, that women do not want to have that much skin exposed, that revealing less is more provocative. Others have predicted that topless suits would become the fashion staple. Some seasons models have paraded down the fashion runways in suits with skirts that have been added to bikini bottoms for more modesty, while other years so-called dental-floss bathing suits that reveal virtually all have been seen on the most fashionable beaches. Nevertheless, when Réard died in 1984 at the age of eighty-seven, the bikini was responsible for nearly 20 percent of all American swimsuit sales—far more than any other model. Bikini (swimsuit) Fashion;bikini

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alac, Patrik. The Bikini: A Cultural History. New York: Parkstone Press, 2002. Covers the history and effects of the bikini within the fashion world, in the larger cultural arena, and even upon fitness and the conditioning of the body to wear the revealing swimsuit. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leerhsen, Charles, Meggan Dissly, Elizabeth Bradburn, and Mac Margolis. “A Brief History of the Bikini: Women Are Observing Its Birthday by Covering Up.” Newsweek 108 (July 7, 1986): 50. A concise, fact-filled tribute to the then-forty-year-old bikini. Explores the social impact of the bikini through a discussion of music and films that it inspired. Documents the firm initial resistance American women had to the fashion and notes that the commitment to the bikini has continued to waver as prominent designers have continued to promote one-piece styles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lencek, Lena, and Gideon Bosker. Making Waves: Swimsuits and the Undressing of America. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1989. An oversized volume that studies the design and manufacture of swimwear, chronicles the evolution of swimsuits from the nineteenth century through the 1980’s, and explores the psychological and social roots of swimsuit styles and their appeal. Has hundreds of photographs, lithographs, and drawings of swimwear worn by Hollywood stars and Sports Illustrated models.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Richard, and Harold Koda. Splash! A History of Swimwear. New York: Rizzoli, 1990. An oversized book printed on high-quality paper. Features a fine collection of photographs of men’s and women’s swimsuits, including the first bikini. An excellent study in style that discusses fashion icons, designers, and photographers. Lacks a bibliography, but all photos have excellent references and are cross-referenced in the index of illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Panati, Charles. “Bathing Suit: Mid-Nineteenth Century, Europe.” In Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, by Charles Panati. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. A well-written, concise history of the evolution of bathing suits into swimming suits, then into the shockingly small bikini. Ties in the beginning of the nuclear age with the explosive impact of the bikini. Contains an illustration of a prototype bikini as depicted in a fourth century Roman mosaic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Probert, Christina. Swimwear in Vogue Since 1910. New York: Abbeville Press, 1981. A fully illustrated book covering seven decades of primarily American swimwear fashions as represented in Vogue magazine. Gives a chronological portrayal of swimwear fashion development from the 1920’s through the 1970’s. Of particular interest is the discussion of the beginning of midriff-exposure swimwear, the predecessor to the bikini.

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Categories: History