The Evolution of the Bikini

Tracee Dundas Founder, New Orleans Fashion Week

Throughout history numerous circumstances have dictated society’s fashion landscape, causing people to pause and take note. Such as the case in the 1940’s, as World War II forced America to rethink many of life’s necessities due to material shortages, inflation or production challenges. It was a cultural pandemic of sorts, as Americans had no choice but to comply with President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8875 of 1941 that would place a ceiling on prices of goods and to limit consumption by rationing for the common good in support of the war effort. This was also true in the clothing industry. During this same period when Americans were faced with fabric rationing, many fashion designers did an about-face of their clothing aesthetic influencing the trajectory of what would be worn. From plunging necklines and shorter hemlines, to nylon withdrawn from the civilian market and outfits in general became more streamlined; fashion was experiencing an evolution that would set the tone for the future.

One of the most noteworthy fashion evolutions of the 1940’s was the transformation of the woman’s swimming attire, presumably in part due to fabric rationing. But let’s first reflect on swimwear for women at a time when it more closely resembled a belted dress over long bloomers. While they weren’t aesthetically appealing, this swim attire fulfilled its primary objective: concealing the female figure. It was strictly about “modesty”, with no consideration to functionality or comfort. These “suits” were made from heavy flannel fabric and required an abundance of material for adequate coverage and sturdy enough to not rise with the water.

It was at the turn of the century when swimming became an intercollegiate and Olympic sport that it was realized a practical design was needed. This paved the way for a more streamline and lighter textile to be introduced. However, with limitations and still modest, of course.

Shortly thereafter it became acceptable for women to expose their arms, hemlines crept up and designers used less fabric to conceal a woman’s body. This new swim attire consisted of a modest, full-coverage bra-style top, high-waisted, shorts-like trunks, baring only a sliver of the midriff without exposing the bellybutton. Although it continued to maintain a level of unpretentiousness, most women were reluctant to wear it out at public beaches in fear of being chastise or receiving a citation.

In the mid 1940’s French couture designer Jacques Heim and Louis Réard who was also French, but an automobile engineer turned fashion designer after acquiring his mother’s lingerie business; both set out to lay claim of designing the smallest two-piece swimsuit. Heim made a first attempt to launch his swim attire prototype in the late 1930’s. Perhaps a bit too soon for public acceptance, as it was deemed as indecent exposure and very few women would dare wear it. Heim reintroduced his version in May 1946, naming his suit the “Atome” after comparing its fashion impact to that of the atomic bomb. Using skywriting, he advertised it as “the world’s smallest bathing suit”.

That same year on July 5th, Réard launched his version of a two-piece bathing suit. As the story goes, while vacationing on Saint Tropez beaches Réard noticed women rolling up the edges of their swimsuit to get a better tan. Harnessing his knowledge, skillset, and appreciation of the female body, he was inspired to design a better swim apparel. Réard was aware of Heim’s unsuccessful attempt of launching the Atome but proceeded unwaveringly to produce his interpretation of the world’s smallest two-piece. His design consisted of little more than two triangles of fabric for the bra, with strings that tied around the neck and back. The same triangle cut comprised the bottom, connected by strings at the hips. He strategically named his two-piece swimsuit the “Bikini” after the newsworthy US Atomic Nuclear Testing Site Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Marshall Islands. Réard also applied and received a patent for his version of the two-piece swimsuit. Not to be outdone by Heim, he then hired nude model Micheline Bernardini to model it. Adding more fuel to the fire, like Heim, he also used skywriting over the French Riviera he advertised the Bikini as “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit” noting he used a mere 30 inches of material for his design, and he anticipated that the Bikini would be an explosive success.

Needless to say, it has been a sensational hit ever since!

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