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Who created the bikini?

We had a memorial service for a friend today, and a running joke we had was about my modeling the Temping Teal Boutique Fleece Bikini. So it brought a smile to my face when I saw this day in history the bikini was invented.

When the bikini first arrived in 1946, the revealing cut was so scandalous even the French fashion models who were supposed to wear it, refused and the designer had to enlist a stripper to model the new bathing suit. However, it was by no means the first time women had worn revealing garments in public. In the fourth century, for example, Roman gymnasts wore bandeau tops, bikini bottoms, and even anklets that would look perfectly at home on the beaches of Southern California today.

At the turn of the 20th century, though, such displays of skin would have been unthinkable. Female swimmers went to extraordinary lengths to conceal themselves at the beach. Wearing voluminous bathing costumes and even made use of a peculiar Victorian contraption called the bathing machine which was essentially a small wooden (or canvas) hut on wheels. The bather would enter the machine fully dressed and once inside, she would put on her swimming clothes. Then, horses (or occasionally humans) pulled the cart into the surf. The bather would disembark on the seaside, where she could take a dip without being observed from the shore.

In the decades that followed, the seaside dress code loosened up considerably. In 1907, Australian swimmer and silent-film star Annette Kellerman—a vocal advocate of more hydrodynamic swimwear—was charged with indecent exposure for appearing on Boston’s Revere Beach in a form-fitting, sleeveless tank suit. The ensuing high-profile legal battle led beaches across the nation to relax their swimwear restrictions. By 1915, American women commonly wore one-piece knitted maillots.

Oddly enough, the two-piece swimsuit—which usually consisted of a structured halter top and a modest bottom that covered the navel, hips, and derrière arrived with much less fanfare than the bikini. By the early ‘40s, film stars including Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, and Lana Turner were all wearing the two-piece, and it was seen frequently on American beaches. Which begs the question, why was skin above the bellybutton so much less controversial than the skin below it? Hollywood’s Hays production codes even allowed two-piece gowns but prohibited navels on-screen.

In the 1940s—as Kelly Killoren Bensimon details in The Bikini Book—attractive women were known as “bombshells,” and anything intense was “atomic.” So, when frenchmen Louis Reard designed a skimpy alternative to the two-piece in the summer of 1946, the suit got a nuclear nickname. Louis Reard introduced his design on July 5, 1946 four days after the United States had begun atomic testing in the Bikini Atoll. In a rather bold marketing ploy, Reard named his creation le bikini, implying it was as momentous an invention as the new atomic bomb.

Thanks to its provocative name and cut, the bikini made international headlines. Photos of Micheline Bernardini, the stripper Reard had enlisted to model it, circulated across the globe. But in the United States, women—including actresses in movies like 1947’s My Favorite Brunette and the model on this 1948 cover of Life magazine—stuck with the traditional two-piece which covered their navels.

Just a few summers later in 1953, the bikini had established a spot on the beaches. This was in large part because of the increasing popularity of the private pool, which gave women a secluded place to test out the new look. A Neiman Marcus buyer even classified the bikini as “a big thing” for 1960. Brian Hyland also had a hit that year with the song “Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” which takes on new meaning when you realize the swimsuit was still catching on at the time.

In today's society, a bikini is perfectly acceptable, some are even so scant the tan-lines left are barely visible. It's amazing what a few decades will change.

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