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Diana Vreeland, as fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, declared it as “the most important development since the atom bomb.” The trendsetting Vreeland was referring to the explosive debut of the bikini, the barely-there beachwear, whose ground zero was Paris’s Piscine Molitor.
Risqué for its time, the first bikini was far more revealing than I would have imagined. This isn’t your grandmother’s bathing costume (not mine anyway). Designer Louis Réard cunningly premiered the bikini, a two-piece swimsuit with a bra-like top and triangular bottom, at the Molitor pool on July 5, 1946, just five days after the atomic bomb tests on the Bikini Atoll. Like the A-bomb, the swimsuit caused an impact, but also like the Bikini Island, it was barely there.
Born in the late 19th century, into a time of radical industrial change, Louis Réard was encouraged to take up a career in automobile engineering. After a false start, he returned to his family’s traditional tailoring business, where, under his guidance, his mother’s flourishing lingerie workshop increased its range. 1930 marked the start of Réard’s new and promising swimwear collection when Louis began designing swimming costumes for a wealthy and worldly clientele. Celebrities like Maurice Chevalier, Mistinguett, and Josephine Baker promoted his brand.
Post-War, the Réard Company needed to regain their joie de vivre. Réard kept himself au courant. Two-piece swimsuits had been available since the mid-30s, but on holiday at Saint Tropez, Louis Réard noticed how women in stylish two-piece combos rolled down the waistband of their boy-like shorts to get a better tan. Tanned skin was no longer a marker of the working class; sun was an indication of health and increased leisure time. Réard was inspired to design a midriff-exposing maillot de bain, but another designer beat him to it.
In the spring of 1946 couturier Jacques Heim created a two-piece swimsuit named the Atome. The lower half of Heim’s design amply covered the wearer’s navel and her bottom. Skywriters above the beaches of the French Riviera were hired by Heim to advertise the Atome as “the world’s smallest bathing suit.”
This was the impetus Louis Réard needed. He produced his own swimsuit consisting of four tiny triangles of printed fabric, tied with strings at the hips, and neck. Scandalously, for the first time, the wearer’s belly button would be visible. Since Réard couldn’t find a respectable model daring enough to wear it, a nude dancer, Micheline Bernardini from the Casino de Paris, was hired to pose in it.
Mid-June, Réard had taken note of the news of the upcoming nuclear test on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. He knew the explosion, like his miniscule swimsuit, would be newsworthy, and copyrighted the name bikini for his design.
Réard’s soon-to-be revealed bikini challenged the Atome. He couldn’t beat Heim to the beaches but would certainly make a bigger splash. Réard planned to gain the upper hand from Heim and looked for a promotional idea to reinvigorate his company. Also looking to bolster their reputation and restore their former post-war splendor was the famous Piscine Molitor, a pool complex renowned for its high-class soirées since 1929. The Molitor was in the midst of organizing their yearly Fête de l’Eau, which included the contest of “the prettiest bather.” The event garnered a lot press coverage, but was also in need of sponsors. Along with Air France, the Réard company officially endorsed the beauty pageant which was scheduled to take place on July 5th, 1946. Réard had found a place to relaunch his brand.
July 5 was a hot, but cloudy day at the Piscine Molitor. The young women participating in the “prettiest bather” contest strolled past a panel of judges and posed for the photographers. As the festivities unfolded, Louis Réard asked Micheline Bernardini to parade in front of the jury and cameras too. His very attractive model suddenly appeared on the poolside, wearing a never-seen-before tiny two-piece swimsuit revealing her navel and most of her buttocks. The bikini was made of fabric printed with an almost self-referential newspaper motif.
Photos show Micheline Bernardini holding a miniature box, a cube of 6cm² that was the packaging for the little product. Its motto was, “only a genuine bikini can be slipped through a wedding ring.” Fourteen days later, Réard applied for a patent for his design, and was awarded patent number 19431.
The International Herald Tribune ran nine stories on the event and Micheline received 50,000 fan letters. Diana Vreeland weighed in again, calling Réard’s bikini the “Swoonsuit,”and slyly said, “it revealed everything about the girl, except her mother’s maiden name.” The bikini bared a number of hither-to-unseen erogenous zones and was therefore banned in some countries and shunned by others. Jacques Heim’s Atome was the first worn on the beach, but the name bikini became the more memorable of the two and Réard’s business soared.
As a further boost for sales, Réard converted a Packard into a ridiculous hybrid of car and cabin cruiser complete with cockpit, portholes, and other nautical regalia. Réard took his souped-up yacht car from town to town, beach to beach, to convince women that “less was more.” Journalists tailed this land ship, which overflowed with pretty women. Much to Réard’s delight, rubberneckers caused traffic jams along the route. This outlandish car helped promote the Réard brand for three decades. Réard opened a bikini shop in Paris and sold his trademarked swimsuits for 40 years. He retired at age 82.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2023 and Paris once again offers Paris Plages on the banks of the Seine – at the Parc Rives de Seine- and at the Bassin de la Villette. The beach destinations open on July 9th and run until August 21st. Deckchairs, parasols, and misting machines called brumisateurs, will be brought to the sites. There’s swimming, water sports, and family activities in the bassin. However, swimming in the Seine is interdit. Remember your swimsuit, one piece or two, and your sunblock!
Lead photo credit : Micheline Bernardini modeling the first bikini on 5 July 1946 at the Piscine Molitor in Paris. Wikimedia commons