A Brief History of the French Bikini

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A Brief History of the French Bikini
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. Designer Louis Réard. Wikimedia Commons 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.” The Atome, designed by Jacques Heim. Credit: Roger Rouffiange (dessinateur), croquis du maillot de bain “Atome” de Jacques Heim, 1946. Palais Galliera, musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris
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Lead photo credit : Micheline Bernardini modeling the first bikini on 5 July 1946 at the Piscine Molitor in Paris. Wikimedia commons

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.

Comments

  • Colleen O Hare
    2023-07-31 08:32:01
    Colleen O Hare
    Loved this article. Deliciously naughty and so informative!

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  • Beth Gersh-Nesic
    2023-07-06 07:01:56
    Beth Gersh-Nesic
    Brilliant, Hazel! As always, I love this story about the bikini. I also enjoyed your reference to Diana Vreeland, who curated several exhibitions for the Costume Institute at the Met Museum in NY. I loved her shows. I just discovered she was born in Paris in 1903 - quelle bonne surprise! Jacques Heim . . .another legend. He collaborated with Sonia Delaunay. What a great contribution to fashion history, Hazel - Merci beaucoup!

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