The bikini debuted in Paris sixty-eight years ago to the fortnight, and in this intervening period, the garment has seen almost universal acceptance. But it was not always thus. There was a time when Louis Reard, the inventor of the bikini, couldn’t even find a model to wear the outfit for promotional purposes.
This was in 1946.
Back then, what passed off for a bikini was a modest two-piece bathing suit which strategically exposed only a small section of midriff. But when Reard noticed that women on beaches typically rolled up the material of their bathing suit to expose more skin, he thought why not do away with all the extra cloth instead.
Why did he call it the bikini? Well, the United States began testing nuclear bombs that same month, and a small atoll was called the ‘bikini’. Reard expected his little invention will create comparable levels of shock in France, so he went ahead and called it by the same name.
This was perfect opportunity-spotting on the part of Reard, because it was right after World War II, and the summer was glorious enough to lure people out onto beaches for fun and frolic. For the first time since Nazi occupation could people think of having a good time, even if they had to wear a 30-inch bathing suit to do so. People were craving for the simple pleasures of the sea and the sun. There wasn’t anything sexual about the bikini; it was merely a celebration of freedom and liberation.
How did Reard overcome the conservative social mores of that period, though? When all leading models turned him down, he went to the sole refuge of the rejected man: a strip club. There he found nineteen-year-old stripper Micheline Bernardini, an exotic dancer, who enthusiastically said yes. Into her hands Reard put a matchbox. Why? To demonstrate that the bikini she was wearing could fit inside of it whole and proper.
The rest, as they say, is history. Bernardini received 50,000 fan letters (and this was way, way before Twitter) for becoming the first woman to wear the outfit. We don’t know for sure if all of her ‘fans’ were men, but there must have been a few women too. Until the 1960s, though, authorities did everything they could to ban the bikini, and they went as far as to drive bikini-clad women off beaches.
But then a movie called ‘Beach Party’ came out, with a song that went: ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’. Actress Annette Funicello swam right into young men’s hearts with that number, and the bikini became an integral part of American popular culture.