On this day: A ‘brief’ history of the bikini

El Paso News

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — The itsy bitsy teeny weeny (sometimes yellow polka dot) bikini was first revealed on July 5, 1946.

The daring two-piece was introduced by Louis Reard, a French fashion designer, at the Piscine Molitor, a très chic Parisian pool. The two-piece was modeled by Parisian showgirl Micheline Bernardini.

Reard coined the term “bikini” for the new swimsuit in homage to the U.S. atomic bomb test that occurred on Bikini Atoll a few days before the two-piece’s reveal.

Although the bikini as we know it was formally introduced into fashion in 1946, women in Europe were wearing two-piece suits since the 1930s that were made up of a halter top and high-waisted shorts with only the slimmest sliver of skin exposed just above the belly button. Reard was the first designer to dare to show a belly button.

Two-pieces became popular in the U.S. during World War II when fabric rationing called for the removal of the swimsuit bottom’s skirt and other cute, but unnecessary, ruffles.

Summer and beach activities in Europe were dormant during wartime, meaning Wester Europeans gave a grand welcome to war-free recreation in the summer of 1946. The people were free and the fashion reflected the newfound sense of liberation, although wearing a bikini on the streets of Barcelona was illegal until 2011.

Reard faced a competitor in Jacques Heim when it came to bikini blueprints. Heim’s bikini was marketed as “the world’s smallest bathing suit” called “the Atom,” aligning — like Reard — with the Western world’s new interest in all things nuclear.

Reard’s bikini top consisted of two inverted triangles on a string made of only 30 inches of newspaper print fabric that the designer boasted was “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit,” giving Reard’s prototype an out-of-this-world appeal to consumers.

The fad caused waves throughout Europe, with Italy and Spain banning the next-to-nothing swimsuit on public beaches. The ban was later lifted in the 1950s when it became clear the bikini was in vogue every summer. 

Reard continued to push the boundaries and public tolerance for skin as he affirmed a bikini wasn’t a genuine bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.”

Actor Brigitte Bardot was the first celebrity to publicly wear a bikini, debuting one at the Cannes Film Festival in 1957.

The European’s sensibilities were much too liberal for the American appetite and bikinis did not become popular in the U.S. until the 1960s, when liberal attitudes were adopted by young people across the country. In 1960, the bikini was immortalized in American pop culture when singer Brian Hyland’s song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” coincided with teen movies starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon.

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