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Posted Wednesday July 5, 2006 07:00 AM EDT

60 Years of Bikinis

Micheline Bernardini models the world’s first bikini, in 1946.
Micheline Bernardini models the world’s first bikini, in 1946.

It’s that time of year again. Magazine racks are awash in headlines like “21 Days to the Perfect Bikini Body,” “15 Minutes to Your Best Bikini Shape,” and “How Stars Get Bikini-Ready.” How can one tiny article of clothing (or rather two) have the power to send millions of women into an endorphin-fueled frenzy? The bikini was introduced by a French designer 60 years ago today, on July 5, 1946. The idea was to liberate women from prudish fashion. Now it has chained them to the gym.

No one had to rev up the Stairmaster to look good in a turn-of-the-century bathing costume consisting of eight yards of fabric and weighing 20 pounds wet. In 1913, inspired by the introduction of female athletes into Olympic swimming events, the designer Carl Jantzen made the first truly functional bathing suit, a close-fitting one-piece with shorts on the bottom and short sleeves up top. The first pre-bikini two-pieces, which covered the navel and left only a slender band of midriff exposed, became popular in the 1940s. Pinups of Rita Hayworth and Esther Williams glamorized the pairing of high-waisted bottoms with generous halters.

In 1946 Louis Réard, a former automotive engineer and the son of a lingerie shop owner, joined the hundreds thronging St. Tropez on the French Mediterranean in the euphoria following the end of the Nazi occupation. There he noticed that juenes filles rolled down the waists of their two-pieces and hitched up their tops to catch more sun. This inspired his bikini, a tiny number named after an atoll where the United States had tested the atomic bomb. It consisted basically of two triangles of fabric on the top and two more, front and back, on the bottom.

He introduced his creation at a fashion event at Piscine Molitor, a popular public pool in Paris. He couldn’t find a model willing to wear such an outfit, so the bikini made its debut on a stripper, Micheline Bernardini. Réard promoted his bathing suit by selling it in a matchbox and declared, “A bikini is not a bikini unless it can be pulled through a wedding ring.” Around the same time Jacques Heim, known for classic sportswear designs, introduced the “Atome,” which he dubbed “the smallest bathing suit in the world.”

Both designs lived up to their explosive names with the controversy they garnered. The bikini was banned in both Italy and Spain, where the authorities led tourists wearing it off the beach. The American fashion industry was appalled. As late as 1957 Modern Girl magazine wrote, “It is hardly necessary to waste words on the so-called bikini, since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.” American women still typically wrapped themselves in architectonic swimwear with menacingly conical bras.

But others, particularly French vacationers, were delighted. “Remember that no one had been to the beach in years,” said Jamie Samet, a fashion writer for Le Figaro. “People were craving the simple pleasures of the sea and the sun. For women, wearing a bikini signaled a kind of second liberation. There was really nothing sexual about this. It was instead a celebration of freedom and a return to the joys in life.”

The bikini took off as a global phenomenon thanks to Brigitte Bardot. The young French actress wore hers scandalously low on her hips with a barely-there top—when she wore a top at all. With her cascading blonde hair and complete comfort with her body, she became the big screen’s first sex kitten. The success her 1956 film . . . And God Created Woman was not lost on American actresses. Marilyn Monroe tossed her swimming trunks for a pair of white panties and a bandeau top, and others followed.

By the early sixties, the bikini had taken hold in America. In 1960 Brian Hyland’s paean to it, “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” made the top ten. Annette Funicello, who started out as a Mouseketeer, donned a bikini in the movie Beach Party in 1963 and made such a hit that six sequels followed, including How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.

The bikini cemented its status as the must-have beach item in America in 1964 when Sports Illustrated published its first swimsuit issue. It featured a model named Babette March giggling in the surf in what was then a sensational bikini but now looks like a demure top and largish panties. (The most recent issue featured a group of topless models in a variety of tiny white bottoms.)

The evolution of Réard’s creation has generally been toward the smaller, especially with the emergence of string and thong bikinis. Designers have gotten women to pay more and more for less and less fabric. And the bikini aesthetic has spread into revealing evening wear, low-rise jeans, and stomach-exposing T-shirts.

The thong fad has thankfully abated in favor of more athletic-looking versions. Actresses kicking butt in movies like Charlie’s Angeles: Full Throttle and Blue Crush have made the two-piece, in the words of Gina Bellafonte of The New York Times, “the millennial equivalent of the power suit.” Bikinis are as popular as ever with a generation eager to show off the results of its fitness obsession. One 41-year-old mother of two recently told The New York Times, “I’ve always had tiny string bikinis, and I refuse to give them up.” She hits the gym five times a week.

But seriously. “The bikini represents a social leap involving body consciousness, moral concerns, and sexual attitudes,” according to Beth Dincuff Charleston, research associate at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The little two-piece bathing suit, born in 1946, grew up to be part of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Few people of any age or either sex, it seems, really don’t like it today.

—Elizabeth D. Hoover is a former editor at American Heritage magazine.

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