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A Car Mechanic Actually Designed the First Modern Bikini

And other things you need to know on the 74th anniversary of the iconic piece of swimwear.
IMAGE wikipedia
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It’s a common sight at the beach these days, but there was a time when a revealing two-piece swimsuit existed only in the mind of Frenchman Louis Reard. Before he unveiled his creation at a fashion show in Paris on this day in 1946, the skimpiest swimwear women wore bared only the midriff. 

But Reard, who was actually an automotive and mechanical engineer, thought women could be more daring, and designed a suit from about 30 inches of fabric. The bottom half was basically two triangles held together with string, while the top was essentially two cups of fabric that covered the breasts.

Another Frenchman by the name of Jacques Heim had actually designed a similar bathing suit and named it the “Atome,” after the smallest known particle of matter. But it was Reard’s creation, which he named after the atomic bomb tests that were held at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific just days before he unveiled his “explosive” creation at the Paris fashion show, that the public ultimately embraced.

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For that fashion show, Reard needed a model who would be daring enough to wear his new invention. Remember, this was the 1940s, and many women wore much more conservative swimsuits. Reard’s suit would also reveal the wearer’s navel or belly button for the first time.

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He found his model in then-19-year-old Micheline Bernardini, who apparently did not have any qualms about wearing a skimpy outfit in public. She wore Reard’s creation with a newsprint design, which was apparently a cheeky nod to how much headlines the new “bikini” would generate.

Micheline Bernardini models the first modern bikini in 1946

Photo by wikipedia.
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He wasn’t wrong. The design pretty much shocked the public, eliciting anger from conservative sectors for years after it was introduced. It was banned in several countries, including Spain, Belgium and Italy. Even Pope Pius XII weighed in on the controversy. When the first Miss World beauty pageant happened in 1951, the winner, Miss Sweden was crowned wearing a bikini. The pope condemned the pageant and issued a statement calling the bikini “sinful.” 

Over time, however, more and more women started embracing the bikini. It helped that actress Brigitte Bardot wore a bikini in the cult classic And God Created Women. Two years later, singer-songwriter Bryan Hyland scored a major hit with the song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” And of course, who can forget original Bond girl Ursula Andress rising from the sea in a white bikini in the 1962 film Dr. No.

Ursula Andress in her iconoc white bikini from the movie Dr. No

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Photo by Wikipedia.

 

By the 1960s, the bikini had become a staple not just in beaches and swimming pools all over the world, but also in pop culture, gaining acceptance in all but the most repressive societies across the globe.

According to a report by Grand View Research, in 2018, the global swimwear market was estimated to be valued at $18.9 billion. Out of this, the women segment accounted for the largest share and is said to be growing at the rate of 6.6 percent between 2019 and 2025. And bikinis remain the most popular choice of swimwear for women, capturing 28 percent of the market compared with 28 percent for swimsuits and four percent for swim shorts, according to Statista.

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Kate Upton in Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue 2012

Photo by Sports Illustrated.

Here in the Philippines, the bikini achieved pop culture immortality thanks to the novelty hit “Bikining Itim” by Bert Dominic, which was first released in 1988. A movie of the same title starring Joey Marquez, Vivian Velez and Cristina Gonzalez was released in 1990.

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Despite its general acceptance in modern Philippine society, the bikini still attracts controversies from time to time. For instance, there was an incident just last year when a Taiwanese tourist in Boracay was fined for wearing a barely there string bikini while walking around the island. Back in 2012, a school barred two students from attending their graduation ceremonies after they posted photos of themselves wearing bikinis on Facebook. They filed a civil case against the school and won a TRO, allowing them to attend the ceremonies along with their classmates. 

Whatever your thoughts on it, there’s no denying that the world certainly became more interesting after Reard’s creation moved from his imagination and out into the real world.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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