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Why we should remember the launch of the swimsuit that scandalised the world

Dr Alison Toplis explains the scandalous story behind the world's first "bikini"...

Woman wearing a bikini
Published: July 4, 2022 at 2:26 pm
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On 5 July 1946, a Frenchman called Louis Réard unveiled a “bikini” at the Piscine Molitor, a Parisian swimming pool. Featuring a print of newspaper pages, the forerunner of today’s string bikinis comprised four triangles. A consummate self-publicist, Réard invited the press to see his scandalous creation. It was worn by a showgirl, Micheline Bernardini, as apparently no “respectable” model would wear such a scant garment.

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The bikini was launched four days after the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests began, and it was this event in the Pacific Ocean that dominated press coverage in Britain immediately afterwards, rather than the risqué fashion innovation of a Frenchman. “Bikini” thus had associations with nuclear explosions as well as a tropical paradise (its transliterated name means “surface of coconuts”).

The tiny size of the atoll was reflected in the diminutive piece of clothing, which Réard later boasted could be pulled through a wedding ring.

Of course, prior to 1946 women wore two-piece swimwear, most notably during the 1930s. Another Frenchman, Jacques Heim, had developed a two-piece bathing suit in 1932, calling it the “Atome”, but this had had a low take-up.

The bikini was modelled by a showgirl, as no ‘respectable’ model would wear such a garment

He relaunched this high-waisted version a month before Réard’s unveiling, calling it the world’s smallest bathing suit, but the paucity of fabric and the navel-baring novelty of Réard’s bikini eventually came to dominate.

Initially, censure and disapproval led to the banning of the bikini on many public beaches including in Spain, France and Australia. And when the winner of the inaugural Miss World beauty contest, held in London in 1951, was crowned wearing a bikini, she received papal condemnation for donning the garment.

However, European and Hollywood film stars, such as Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe, did much to glamourise and gradually popularise the bikini’s use by the late 1950s. As the clothing of choice of Bond girls and then Sports Illustrated swimsuit-issue cover stars from 1964 onwards, the bikini gained further allure.

Today it remains a contentious garment, summing up many contemporary concerns. These range from worry about damage to health caused by overexposure to the sun to ongoing religious and moral anxieties. There also continue to be debates about the problematic male gaze as well as around the limitations of the “aspirational” western female beauty standard of the “bikini body”.

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Dr Alison Toplis is a dress and textile historian. You can find her on Twitter @everyday_dress

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