Culture Re-View: A short history on the invention of the bikini

Two women wearing bikinis
Two women wearing bikinis Copyright Canva
By Jonny Walfisz
Share this articleComments
Share this articleClose Button

5 July 1946: The birth of the bikini


Ubiquitous among the beaches of almost every holiday destination on the planet. Bikinis are the go-to fashion trend for anyone wanting to soak up some rays, splash among the waves, and hoover up ice creams with their navel on show.

The concept of a matching two-piece set dates back as far as the Copper Age with evidence of the Chalcolithic mother-goddess of Çatalhöyük, in modern day Anatolia depicted wearing a similar costume in 5,600 BC.

Through the Ancient Greeks and Romans, many women have been depicted wearing something akin to the bikini. But due to Christian attitudes towards swimming restricting the clothing of women for centuries, the bikini disappeared from the historical record after the Romans until the early 20th century.

By the early 1900s, swimming costumes have come into fashion, but the idea of women baring their midriffs is yet to be accepted.

Wikimedia Commons; Canva
One of the earliest known images of a bikini, from the Ancient Roman Villa Romana del Casale (L); the modern bikini (R)Wikimedia Commons; Canva

As form-fitting swimwear became more popular, the necklines of women's costumes started dropping their necklines and incorporating a midriff exposing two-piece design. Coco Channel is credited for making a suntan a fashion statement in the West, and desire for more skin exposure was growing.

Throughout the 1930s, examples of early two-piece swimwear abound. The pre-Hays Code 1933 film Footlight Parade features a sequence of synchronised swimming with women wearing bikini-like costumes.

It wasn’t until 1946 that the bikini would be officially born.

Louis Réard, a French engineer and clothes designer had taken over his mother’s Paris lingerie shop in 1940. While spending time in Saint Tropez, Réard noticed women folding their swimming costumes up to get a better tan.

At the time, another French fashion designer, Jacques Heim, was promoting a new swimsuit — the Atome — that was tipped as the world’s “smallest bathing suit”. Réard produced his own version, an even skimpier concept made of just four triangles of fabric connected by string.

Debuted on 19-year-old nude dancer Micheline Bernardini at the Piscine Molitor on this day in 1946, Réard called his new design the “bikini”.

Wikimedia commons
Micheline Bernardini wearing the first bikini, 1946 (L); Brigitte Bardot, 1953 (R)Wikimedia commons

Nodding towards Heim’s Atome, the bikini was named after the nuclear warhead test that had taken place four days earlier at Bikini Atoll. Despite resistance from the press and religious representatives, Réard’s design was popular and he received 50,000 fan letters.

By the early 1950s, the list of stars who had been photographed in bikinis made them one of the most spoken about clothing items of the era. Brigitte Bardot famously wore one in 1953 at Cannes after her 1952 film Manina, the Girl in the Bikini turned it into an international talking point. Soon, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren would join Bardot’s ranks as fans of the bikini.

Share this articleComments

You might also like