The bikini swimsuit was introduced for the first time, four days after an atomic test at the Bikini Atoll.
Although there is evidence of bikini-like clothing being worn by ancient civilisations, the modern 2-piece swimsuit only appeared in the aftermath of the Second World War. While swimming costumes for women had gradually become less conservative through the first half of the twentieth century, wartime fabric rationing had forced designers to remove excess material which resulted in more form-fitting garments that had less panels covering the wearer’s body.
A minimalist two-piece swimsuit was introduced by French fashion designer Jacques Heim in May 1946. Named the ‘Atome’ after the smallest known particle of matter, the bottom still covered the wearer’s naval. Meanwhile Louis Réard was working on his own design which used even less material.
Réard hired exotic dancer Micheline Bernardini from the Casino de Paris to model his creation, since he couldn’t persuade any of the usual models to wear it. He called a press conference at the Piscine Molitor in Paris on 5 July 1946, four days after an atomic test at the Bikini Atoll that inspired the swimsuit’s name. Here he stated that, ‘like the [atom] bomb, the bikini is small and devastating’.
Despite receiving enormous media interest, the public reaction to the bikini was initially one of shock. Even in the late 1950s some magazines were still writing disapprovingly of the fashion, with Modern Girl Magazine declaring ‘it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing’. Yet while there was a conservative reaction from some quarters, photographs of celebrities wearing bikinis soon brought mainstream acceptance that has turned the 2-piece swimsuit into an $800 million business.