|Micheline Bernardini in the first bikini, 1946|
The summer of 1946 was a season of freedom in Paris. Europe had just emerged from World War II, the beaches were clear and the liberated French were ready to carry liberation a bit further — an itsy bitsy, teeny weeny bit further, in the form of a women’s bathing costume that could just about fit into a shot glass.
The bikini was born at a Paris poolside photo shoot on July 5, 1946, a week before Bastille Day and in the midst a global textile shortage. The designer, former engineer Louis Réard, hired the only model willing to expose so much model, a 19-year-old nude dancer from the Casino de Paris named Micheline Bernardini. She put on the four small patches he had strung together and showed the fashion world the female belly button.
Réard’s innovation wasn’t the first to split women’s traditional swimwear in two. Hollywood icons and pinup models had long worn two-piece suits, as was evident under the lids of thousands of GI footlockers still being shipped home from Europe. But that navel was novel.
Kelly Killoren Bensimon, who recorded a history of the garment in “The Bikini Book,” said that last inch of midriff was fashion’s final “zone of contention.”
“We had seen Jayne Mansfield and a lot of other actresses wearing two-piece bathing suits,” Bensimon said in an interview. “But never with the navel showing. That was the scandal.”
By 1946, Réard had left automotive engineering to work in his mother’s lingerie business. In the heady months after the armistice, he was in an arms race with another designer to create the world’s smallest swimsuit.
The rival, Jacques Heim, claimed success with a design he called “the Atom.” But Reard, stitching together a napkin’s worth of newsprint-patterned fabric, achieved something smaller than Heim’s Atom, which he named after the Bikini Atoll, the remote island where atoms were being split in atomic bomb tests that very week.
“We’ve seen it after many wars,” Bensimon said. “In the safer time to follow, we get these celebrations of freedom and the human body.”
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At first, the bikini was more of a sensation than a success. Some photographers and models did dare to shoot the suits, and Réard built his own business around the design.
But it was slow to break through the modesty barriers on European beaches, much less in the postwar United States. Many commentators condemned the look, and plenty of communities banned it. Even today, the swimsuit is the center of debate in some Western locales; Barcelona banned wearing a bikini on the streets in 2011.
|Annette Funicello in Bikini Beach|
I was in love with Annette when I was 6 years old. Or at least I thought I was. Even before she put on the bikini.
But celebrities began their own navel maneuvers. Six years after Bernardini was the first girl in a bikini, Bridgette Bardot made “The Girl in the Bikini.” In 1962, Ursula Andress strode from the surf in “Dr. No” in nothing but a knife and bikini as the original Bond girl.
In the United States, it took a former Mousketeer to make the big reveal okay for family viewing, Bensimon said. When Annette Funicello, a child star from the Mickey Mouse Club, got permission to wear a bikini in most of her madcap beach movies, it wasn’t just Frankie Avalon who did a double take.
“Everybody noticed,” Bensimon said. “She just wanted to be one of the cool kids.”
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More modern examples of bikinis below:
|Ana Beatriz Barros|