In the beginning, God also created the bikini (thanks, God)

By on July 5, 2015

On July 5, 1946, a 19-year old nude dancer named Micheline Bernardini debuted a daring two-piece swimsuit at a fashion show held at Piscine Molitor, a popular public swimming pool located in Paris’ 16th arrondissement. The suit was christened the “bikini” by its creator, designer Louis Réard, who was inspired by the Operation Crossroads nuclear weapon test that had taken place just four days earlier at the Bikini Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Réard believed that once the public had the chance to see Ms. Bernardini in a bikini at the pool (it’s the same pool for which the title character in the novel and movie Life of Pi is named, by the way, and it was first used in the 1929 Olympics), it was going to be just as explosive as those bombs that had been tested on the atoll. Réard was right: the world has never been the same.

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True story: that little box Micheline Bernardini is holding in her hand is the box her bikini came in.

Neal Marshad’s award-winning and somewhat light-hearted 1982 TV documentary “In the Beginning, God Created the Swimsuit” — critically lauded when it aired on MTV, and later awarded the prestigious Gold Award at the International Film and TV Festival in New York — is a definitive look at the history of women’s swimwear, and features interviews with legendary 80s fashion authorities like Oscar de La Renta, Oleg Cassini, Giorgio Sant’Angelo, Monika Tilley, Anne Cole, and Bill Blass.

The documentary is surprisingly humorous too, and details how women’s swimsuits have changed over time. In particular, the doc reveals how the bikini actually dates back to before World War II, and to the beaches of Europe in the 1930s, when women began wearing two-piece bathing suits that consisted of nothing more than a halter top and shorts. Marshad’s doc is careful to point out that only a sliver of midriff was revealed by those early suits, and the girl’s bellybuttons were always carefully covered up.

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Back to Louis Réard: the one-time French automobile engineer had been unable to persuade a fashion model into showcasing his bikini, but Ms. Bernardini certainly had had no qualms about appearing nearly nude in public, considering that at the time she was working as a showgirl at the Casino de Paris, and ended up causing something of a scandal simply by wearing the bikini, which was made out of 30 square inches of cloth with a newspaper pattern that was supposed to be an allusion to all the headlines Réard expected the bikini to garner.

When the Paris fashion press wrote about the bikini, they suggested that its name came from the fact that it looked as if its wearer was covered by what little would be leftover after a nuclear bomb blast.

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The bikini had been promoted by Réard’s company that week as being “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit,” which actually makes no sense, if you think about it, since it probably was the world’s smallest bathing suit, at the time. The original advertisements didn’t try to hide the fact that the two-piece bikini was supposed to be skimpy, saying it wasn’t a Réard bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.” It came in a very tiny box, in fact.

Bernardini ended up receiving some 50,000 fan letters after making her appearance at Piscine Molitor that day, and most of those were sent in by horny European men who apparently had not seen any real live women in their underwear before.

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Actually, according to Wikipedia’s entry for the bikini, the first bikini-type suits can probably be traced all the way back to the Chalcolithic era, around 5600 B.C., to the mother-goddess of Çatalhöyük, who in some sculptures is depicted astride two leopards wearing a costume which kinda looks somewhat like a bikini, if you squint (that’s her wearing the bikini, understand, not the leopards).

Then, moving forward a bit to 1400 B.C., two-piece garments are shown being worn by women “for athletic purposes” on the surface Greek urns, and so-called “active women” of ancient Greece are also depicted wearing something called a mastodeton or an apodesmos, which is a kind of breastband and undergarment combo, and those images continue to be shown on urns and plates and what-not, right up through the Middle Ages.

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Of course, this means that typically only sporty girls of antiquity wore bikini and bikini-friendly items of clothing, and that sort of activewear ensemble continues to be shown as you move forward into to the Diocletian period, circa 286-305 AD., when illustrations of Roman women can be seen on the mosaics at the Villa Romana del Casale, at the Piazza Armerina, in the Province of Enna in Sicily, wearing wearing similar bikini-like garments at competitive athletic events, like the one called Sala delle Dieci Ragazze (translated variously as “Room of Ten Young Girls” and “Chamber of the Ten Maidens”), which shows sporty spice maidens in skimpy two-piece outfits, who are no doubt now dubbed the “bikini girls” by cheeky tour guides.

They’re seen tossing around a discus, as well as weight-lifting, running and playing various other ball-type games. Apparently it was okay for a long, long time to wear a bikini type of garment as long as you were chucking around a Frisbee or doin’ some kind of Olympic sporting event, but if you were laying on a beach or by a pool or something, catchin’ a few rays in your two-piece bikini, and there wasn’t a Frisbee in the air at the time, either heading out of your hand or heading your way, it was considered scandalous.

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Fast-forward to the mid-1940s: the first changes to the modern swimsuit begin to happen during WWII, when the rationing of fabric for the war effort meant that the skirt panel that had previously been attached to the bottom-half of the suit was the first big change to the swimsuit, but we’re guessing that a lot of women failed to notice the changes since there were probably not a lot of women sunbathing on the beaches while the allied invasions were going on anyway.

Now, let’s jump way ahead again, to the 1940s. Along came Réard, who had the idea to design an even skimpier swimsuit after noticing that women had been rolling up their beachwear to get a better tan anyway, exposing more skin than previous swimsuits was revealing. His design was basically a bra top and two inverted triangles of cloth, connected by string (made from just 30-inches of fabric) for the bottom of the suit. According to Kevin Jones, curator and fashion historian at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, or FIDM: “Réard was ahead of his time by about 15 to 20 years. Only women in the vanguard, mostly upper-class European, women embraced it.”

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Actually, Réard was actually one of two French clothing designers — Jacques Heim being the other — who were working on competing prototypes of the bikini. Like Réard, Heim had also been inspired by what he’d seen on the Bikini Atoll, but he stupidly decided to call his bathing suit the “atome” — for atom, after the smallest known particle of matter.

Heim’s suits were actually the first to be worn on the beach in the south of France — the bottom-half of his design was just large enough to cover the wearer’s navel even though he too advertised his creation as “the world’s smallest bathing suit” — and, sure, he sold a few atomes at the beach shop he owned on the French Riviera, but apparently the only people who were really interested in atomes were nerdy scientists, and they notoriously did not wear skimpy two-piece bathing suits.

Réard’s bikini that proved to be the successful suit that women wanted to wear, and Heim’s atomes split after that. Réard’s store on the Avenue de l’Opera, meanwhile, produced over a hundred styles of bikinis until in closed in 1984.

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Despite being a hit in the more progressive south of France, the bikini wasn’t an immediate success in along the French Atlantic coastline, where the bikini was banned. Spain, Belgium and Italy — three countries neighboring France — as well as Portugal and Australia, and the United States too, either prohibited sales of the bikini or discouraged women from wearing them, but it was mostly a big deal in European countries, where the Catholic church threw kind of a shitfit over the bikini. Pope Pius XII declared the bikini to be “sinful,” and he declared that none of his cardinals would be allowed to wear one. The bikini was outright banned at the Vatican, even if worn behind closed doors.

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Some people in a few of those countries were so scandalized by seeing so much bare skin on bikini’d women at the beach and at the pool. that they actually wrote letters to the editor of their newspapers to complain about the swimsuit.

Eventually, people in countries like Spain and Italy — who had initially passed measures prohibiting bikinis from being worn on public beaches — started to realize that the men and women in the south of France were having more fun than they were, and so they capitulated to the changing times, and within just a few years the bikini swimsuit ended up becoming so popular on most European beaches during the 1950s that they figured if people had a problem with it they’d just have to talk about with their Catholic priests in the confessional (just as long as they didn’t wear one in the booth).

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Kerstin “Kiki” Håkansson (center) reigned for the longest period in Miss World history: 475 days (almost 16 months) from the time she was crowned on July 29, 1951, in London

There were subsequent scandals when contestants appearing in the first Miss World beauty pageant wore them, in 1951, which caused for them to be banned from competition. That same year, Time magazine interviewed American swimsuit mogul Fred Cole, owner of Cole of California reported that he had “little but scorn for France’s famed bikinis,” because they were designed for “diminutive Gallic women.”

“French girls have short legs,” he explained. “Swimsuits have to be hiked up at the sides to make their legs look longer.”

Then, Brigitte Bardot, bless her, wore a bikini in Manina, the Girl in the Bikini (released in France as Manina, la fille sans voiles), a film which drew considerable attention due to her skimpy two-piece swimsuit. Then, she wore a bikini while cavorting around on the beach during the Cannes Film Festival, in 1953, and men, and women, everywhere around the world, lost their freaking minds. Trust us, no one paid any attention to whether or not Brigitte Bardot had short legs.

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Soon, actresses like Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner were wearing bikini, and soon enough the bikini was pretty much what every free-thinking woman (and some men) was wearing at the beach and the poo. The bikini sold well all over Europe and it eventually crossed over into the more-prudish United States, were it was initially rejected and resisted by uptight American women, until the early 1960s, but eventually young women here in the States decided that they were just as liberated as the women from France or Spain or any of those foreign countries, dadgummit, and soon the stores that sold swimwear couldn’t keep the bikini suits in stock. Every girl needed a bikini, whether they had a bikini bod, or not.

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In 1960, singer Brian Hyland immortalized the swimsuit when he sang about a girl who wore an “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini,” and now people weren’t just standing around at the beach or the pool, lookin’ at the girls wearing them, they were singing songs about them too. The bikini was also celebrated by bands like the Beach Boys, who publicly wished all the girls of the world could be California girls, but they were a little confused and perhaps a little geographically-challenged about diggin’ French bikinis on Hawaii island dolls (yeah, wouldn’t those be Hawaiian bikinis? OK, kidding).

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Models wearin’ bikinis began showing up in the pages of just about every magazine you can imagine — like Playboy, Life, Look and Popular Mechanics, even showing up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and when Ursula Andress wore one in the James Bond flick Dr. No in 1962, bikini sales skyrocketed through the proverbial roof, and sold like hotcakes, or hotcakes on a roof, something like that. By 1963, they were showing up right and left in all of the teensploitation movies focusing on the California surfing beach culture, cinematic summer fare like 1963’s Beach Party, starring bikini-clad Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, followed by Muscle Beach Party (1964), Bikini Beach and Beach Blanket Bingo (1965).

By the time Raquel Welch showed up as a cavewoman named “Loana the Fair One” in the 1966 Hammer fantasy flick One Million Years B.C., wearing a fur bikini made out of deerskin, people pretty much realized that the bikini was here to stay, it wasn’t going away, and there was no reason to keep talkin’ to their priest about it either. Raquel’s character was even promoted by the Hammer studio as wearing “mankinds’s first bikini,” and it really doesn’t matter in the movie what she did in the swimsuit — she’s shown fighting off flying dinosaurs, rowdy bearded cavedudes, or getting into catfights, like the memorable scene with lovely former Bond villainess Martine Beswick — because the fact that she’s a cavewoman in a fur bikini surely bests any of those ten sportsbra-wearin’ Roman babes seen in those excavated mosaics in Sicily, and by quite a few centuries.

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So, take that, sporty babes of antiquity! Bikinis have apparently been around forever, in some form or another, and they’re probably going to be wearing them in outer space someday too, you can bet your sweet bippy.

Hope you had as much fun reading this as we did researching it!

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • CatoYounger

    Brigitte Bardot in the white bikini….