Celebrating the Bikini
July 5, 2011 --
If you hit the beach over the Independence Day weekend, you couldn't escape the sight of a 65-year-old summer staple: the bikini. Though the two-piece is widely spotted on sandy coastlines throughout the world today, this bathing suit was not always so commonplace. In fact, it caused such an uproar that some nations banned the garment outright within their borders. However, since the launch of the bikini, named after the islands on which atomic bombs were tested after the new bathing suit went off with a bang, summer has never been the same.
Bikini Inventor On July 5, 1946, French engineer Louis Réard released to the world what would become the modern incarnation of the bikini. In this photo, Réard appears later in life in front of the outfit he made famous.
Bikinis and Bombshells Before Réard debuted his take on women's swimwear, designers in the 1930s and 1940s had already begun to experiment with two-piece bathing suits. These garments typically wrapped around the midriff and covered the navel. Réard's design, by contrast, was far more revealing. Model Micheline Bernardini demonstrates one of the first of Reard's original bikinis. Since no professional models would agree to wear Réard's creation, he had to hire Bernardini, a nude dancer. The object she's holding in her left hand is a matchbox, in which the bikini could fit. Named by Réard after the islands upon which the atomic bombs were tested, Bernardini and the other bikini models may have been history's first figurative "bombshells."
Roman Bikinis Although Réard's quest to design women's swimwear that was "smaller than the world's smallest bathing suit" led directly to the popularity of the bikini, his concept wasn't entirely original. In fact, women have been documented publicly wearing similar garments as far back as 3,400 years ago. This mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily shows Roman women from the fourth century exercising while wearing a two-piece ensemble similar to a bikini. These garments, however, were not swimwear. They were used as athletic clothing and later undergarments into the Middle Ages.
Crimes and Misdemeanors Starting in the mid-19th century and on into the early 20th, women's bathing suits were a little more restrictive -- and restricted, legally speaking, throughout the United States. Swimwear that was too revealing violated indecent exposure laws. The 1907 case of one woman, Australian swimmer and performer Annette Kellerman, who was arrested for wearing a bathing suit without sleeves, even appeared on the big screen decades later in the 1952 film "Million Dollar Mermaid." Esther Williams, star of "Million Dollar Mermaid," is seen here playing Kellerman.
The Shrinking Suit As the 20th century rolled forward, women's bathing suits rolled backward. Sleeves disappeared, necklines dropped and more skin was exposed. In this photo, a police officer in Palm Beach, Fla., measures the length of a woman's bathing suit to determine whether it conforms to the law.
Slow to Catch On Although the bikini sold well in France, the reception was less enthusiastic elsewhere in Europe and around the world. Réard's swimwear was banned by many U.S. states and several countries, including Italy and Belgium. Within the swimsuit industry in the U.S., the bikini was met with scorn, with its detractors claiming the suit left nothing to the imagination. Even the Vatican weighed in. Despite the controversy of the garment, the sex appeal of the bikini proved an undeniable draw. Bridgette Bardot, seen here in a bikini while filming the French movie "Le Trou Normand," is credited with popularizing the bikini in terms of raising widespread awareness of the swimsuit.
Stalled Debut Other Hollywood actresses, including Marilyn Monroe, also picked up on the bikini's appeal and could be seen wearing them in promotional shots. By the end of the 1950s, however, bikinis were still a rare sight on American beaches. That started to change as a new decade rolled in.
Captured in a Ditty In 1960, Brian Hyland helped transform the bikini from cutting edge to bubblegum with the (annoyingly) catchy song "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." With this newer, less-racy depiction of the bikini, sales took off.
Bond Girl Boost When Ursula Andress, who played Honey Ryder and is widely regarded as the first "Bond girl," strolled out of the water wearing a white bikini as seen in this photo, Andress made fashion -- and film -- history. By the mid-1960s, bikinis had gone mainstream.
Ever Smaller The popularity of the bikini led to new takes on Réard's original design. In the 1970s, Brazil gave the world the thong bikini, topping Réard's smallest-ever bathing suit. With the widespread acceptance the swimsuit now enjoys, the bikini has lost some of its edge, but it still maintains the same sex appeal that it did when it first premiered 65 years ago.