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History of the Bikini – Bikini Atoll – Origin of Two Piece Swimsuits

The modern bikini has a long and controversial past. It is even associated with nuclear testing in the USA! Read on to find out more about the history of the bikini and the origin of early two piece swimsuits.

The word bikini is generic term for a two-piece swimsuit that comes in many different cuts, styles, patterns and colors.

However, in addition to being the accepted term for a two-piece bathing suit, the bikini is actually the specific name given to a particular swimsuit invented and debuted in France in 1946.  

bikini flatlay, sunglasses, passport

Think of it this way, the word bikini similar to the word Band-Aid. Band-Aid is the term widely used to describe adhesive bandages, and it is also the brand name of the first adhesive bandage invented in 1920! 

The word bikini, like the word Band-Aid, has become both a generic reference and the term for a specific brand of that item.

It is only fitting that the bikini has its own national day! July 5 is celebrated each year as National Bikini Day.

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History of the bikini 

The history of national bikini day is tied to a French engineer, a Parisian exotic dancer, a United States nuclear testing site, and a post war fabric shortage!

woman in vintage swimsuit at the pool

Who invented the bikini?

Historically, bikini-like costumes were depicted in Greco-Roman art as early as 1400 B.C.  However, the invention of the modern day bikini is credited to French mechanical engineer, Louis Réard in 1946. 

louis reard invented the bikini

While Réard was not the first to invent a two-piece swimsuit, he did invent and patent the bikini which changed the fabric of swimwear culture entirely. 

The earliest two piece swimsuits

history of the bikini research shows a photo of the earliest two-piece swimsuits

In the 1930s, two piece swimsuits began to appear in Europe, though they are not similar to the ones worn today.

They consisted of long trunk-like shorts and a long top that revealed only the most modest section of midriff.

After World War II, in the United States, wartime fabric rationing encouraged women’s swimwear to use less fabric, resulting in smaller swimwear.

However, the suits were still nowhere close to as revealing as our modern day bikini. 

Who named the bikini?

In May of 1946 a French fashion designer named Jacques Heim created a garment called the atome, which he  declared to be the smallest swimsuit in the world. 

The word “atome” translated from French means “atom“, which in 1946 was still believe to be the smallest particle of matter. It’s a perfect metaphor for this small swimsuit!

bikini model wearing a two-piece swimsuit

However, on July 5, 1946 the modern day bikini was officially invented by a mechanical engineer names Louis Réard.

He noticed that women were rolling the edges of their swimwear to improve their tans and this gave them the world’s smallest swimsuit yet!

Réard’s bikini was smaller than Heim’s atome, since it was the first piece of swimwear to show the navel, which shocked the general public.

Who wore the first bikini?

Louis Réard’s bikini was so small, that he had a hard time finding anyone bold enough to wear such a revealing garment.  

old photo of a woman sunbathing in a white bikini

After being turned down by many fashion models, he found Micheline Bernardini.

She was 19 year old a nude dancer employed at the Casino De Paris, and she agreed to be the first to wear his daring bikini.

Michelle Bernardini debuted this scant garment during a poolside fashion event at the Piscine Molitor in Paris, and it changed swimwear as we know it. 

What is Bikini Atoll?

Louis Réard named his two piece swimsuit a bikini (a term which he later patented).  Louis Réard named the bikini after Bikini Atoll. 

bikini atoll nuclear bombing in 1946

Bikini Atoll is a location in the Marshall Islands where the United States conducted nuclear testing between 1946 and 1958.

During that time 23 nuclear weapons that were tested, and the first test occurred on July 1, 1946, only four days before Réard’s release of the bikini.

The nuclear testing was prevalent in the news, and Réard capitalized on its notoriety.

He knew how explosive his swimwear garment would be to the fashion scene and gave it a name fitting of its historical impact – the bikini. 

Bikini controversy 

The bikini’s controversy began with its size – this tiny garment measured in at a mere 30 inches!

Since it was the first swim wear to expose the navel, and was thought of by some as indecent.

The bikini’s revolutionary small design was slow to be widely accepted. Many places banned the wearing of bikini’s because they were deemed to be too immodest.  

two pairs of neon bikinis

While many questioned the garment’s modesty, Micheline Bernardini garnered a stunning 50,000 fan letters from the bikini’s debut at the Piscine Molitor. Unsurprisingly, most of the letters were penned by men.

Since Jacques Heim and Louis Réard debuted their swimwear within two months of each other, there is still some debate as to who invented the bikini.

However, Réard’s patent secured the name ‘bikini’, and he is heralded as the bikini’s true inventor by the majority of people.

Fun facts about the bikini

Brush up on your knowledge of bikinis with these fun facts. Some may surprise you!

brunette bikini surfer girl

  • The bikini wasn’t the world’s first two piece bathing suit. Modest two piece swimsuits existed as early as the 1930s in Europe.  
  • The rationing of fabric during World War II encouraged smaller bathing suits.
  • Louis Réard who invented the bikini wasn’t a fashion designer, he was a mechanical engineer.
  • The bikini is named after a location used by the United States to test nuclear bombs.
  • The first bikini was worn in Paris, France. 
  • The first woman to wear a bikini was a 19 year old nude dancer named Micheline Bernardini.
  • The first bikini measured in at only 30 inches.
  • When the bikini was first invented, it was so controversial that many countries banned the bikini.
  • Even though the bikini was invented in 1946, it wasn’t popular or widely accepted in the United States until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

relaxing poolside in a bikini

Summer is a time to head to the beach to soak up some sun. For many of us that means donning a bikini. Find out all about the history of the bikini at Always The Holidays. ☀️ 👙 🏝 Click To Tweet

Discover some more historical trivia

The bikini is just one item with a controversial and interesting history. Many traditions and commonplace items also have an interesting origin.Black and white vintage photos

Do you like fun facts? Be sure to also check out the history of these topics as well:

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woman wearing the bikini - the swimsuit that shocked the world

Jess author photoAbout the author

Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.

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