It might surprise people to know that the word “bikini” was taken by Louis Réard from Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, where the first atomic bomb test was carried out on July 1, 1946 and 22 subsequent nuclear bombs were detonated.
The bikini was born at a Paris poolside photo shoot on July 5, 1946, a week before Bastille Day and in the midst a global textile shortage. The designer, former engineer Louis Réard, hired the only model willing to expose so much model, a 19-year-old nude dancer from the Casino de Paris named Micheline Bernardini. She put on the four small patches he had strung together and showed the fashion world the female belly button.
The summer of 1946 was a season of freedom in Paris. Europe had just emerged from World War II, the beaches were clear and the liberated French were ready to carry liberation a bit further — an itsy bitsy, teeny weeny bit further, in the form of a women’s bathing costume that could just about fit into a shot glass.
In this photo, Micheline Bernardini introduces the “tiny” bikini, made from only 30 inches of fabric, at the Molitor swimming pool in Paris, July 5, 1946, holding a matchbox to show off that the new swimsuit could fit entirely into it.
Réard’s innovation wasn’t the first to split women’s traditional swimwear in two. Hollywood icons and pinup models had long worn two-piece suits, as was evident under the lids of thousands of GI footlockers still being shipped home from Europe. But that navel was novel.
Kelly Killoren Bensimon, who recorded a history of the garment in “The Bikini Book,” said that last inch of midriff was fashion’s final “zone of contention.”
“We had seen Jayne Mansfield and a lot of other actresses wearing two-piece bathing suits,” Bensimon said in an interview. “But never with the navel showing. That was the scandal.”
Another Frenchman, Jacques Heim, had come out with a two-piece suit called the “Atome” three weeks before the bikini made its debut, billed as the world’s smallest swimsuit. But the atome was quickly usurped by “le bikini.”
The nuclear allusions might seem strange, but beautiful women were called “bombshells” in the 1940s.
“You had two-piece bathing suits in France from the 1930s on” said Valerie Steele, museum director at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. “But as they got skimpier, the exposure of the belly button with bikinis caused a huge uproar. And for a long time, that was really quite taboo in America. Two-piece was fine to show some midriff. But you didn’t want to show the belly button itself.”
Just a year after the debut of the bikini many, including actress Marilyn Monroe seen here in 1947 at age 21, still opted for the non-navel bearing, more demure, two-piece style.