The bikini’s 60th birthday

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in The Daily Southtown on July 2, 2006.

Sixty years ago, the U.S. military blew up an atomic bomb over Bikini atoll. A week later, on July 5, another sort of bikini made its explosive debut.

Grabbing the name “bikini” from the Pacific Ocean nuclear test that was in the news that week, Paris fashion designer Louis Réard presented a model wearing the skimpiest swimsuit anyone had ever seen.

Over the past six decades, designers have tried every imaginable way of making that skimpy suit even skimpier. Bikini-clad bombshells have become an icon of sex appeal. And for its critics, those barely concealing little pieces of fabric have become a symbol of decadence and the objectification of women.

“I think, on the right body, it’s fabulous,” says Beverly Aylward of Palos Heights, who works at That Girl boutique in Worth and coordinates shows for Fashions With Flair in Oak Brook. “Everything is age-related. You don’t have to have the perfect body. Fashion is something that reflects your personality.”

“It’s not really considered swimwear anymore,” says Debby Behl, owner of Exotic Tans and Swimwear in Mokena. Like lingerie, she explains, it is worn more for sex appeal than for swimming. “It’s apparel.”

When the bikini was born, Vogue editor Diana Vreeland called it “the atom bomb of fashion,” but it was not actually the first tiny swimsuit with an atomic theme.

Earlier, French designer Jacques Heim had introduced a two-piece outfit, called the “Atome” because of its miniscule size. In a game of one-upmanship, Réard proclaimed that his bikini was “smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world.”

Some speculated that Réard called it a bikini to hype the swimsuit as a sort of explosion. One fashion writer suggested that a model wearing a bikini resembled the survivor of a bomb blast whose clothes had been blown away. Years later, Réard claimed that he called it the bikini simply because that atoll in the Pacific was “tiny, a paradise.”

Neither the bikini nor the Atome was the first two-piece swimsuit. Scantily clad ladies in similar outfits are depicted in ancient paintings. But modesty had ruled for a long time in the Western world, until swimsuits began contracting in the first half of the 20th century.

In 1910, swimmer Annette Kellerman made waves by appearing in a sleek, one-piece suit that lacked all of the standard figure-concealing frills. In 1926, Gertrude Ederle swam across the English Channel in nothing more than a brassiere and shorts. Other women followed suit, and Life magazine noted, “Neither sermons nor ordinances have slowed the steady progress from bloomers to one-piece suit to bra and diaper pants.”

But even as women began baring their midriffs in the 1930s, they were still wearing tops that revealed no cleavage and pants that looked like, well, pants. And in the United States, the Hays Code banned belly buttons from appearing on movie screens. War rationing of fabric offered one excuse for making swimsuits smaller during World War II.

A year before the bikini became official, Life magazine showed American readers the “French bathing suits” that were popular in Paris – which look suspiciously like Réard’s later “invention.” They just weren’t as tiny.

Réard, an automobile engineer who’d taken over his mom’s lingerie shop, had trouble finding a model willing to wear his bikini in public. He hired 19-year-old nude dancer Micheline Bernardini to appear — practically nude — before 10,000 people at a Paris swimming pool.

She was wearing a mere 30 inches of fabric. Réard remarked, “A bikini is not a bikini unless it can be pulled through a wedding ring.”

Bernardini reportedly received 50,000 letters and proposals, but the bikini did not make news in the United States until September 1949, when celebrity judges Milton Berle and Harold Lloyd took a look at some bathing beauties wearing bikinis at a Hollywood benefit.

Life magazine was unimpressed. Its photo captions criticized the bikinis as impractical: “Top falls down at slightest provocation, such as exhaling. While making repairs, wearer stares off into the distance, hoping others will look there too … Bottoms ride up, making already revolting conditions even worse. They ride down too (and) show unattractive areas.”

The bikini was denounced by the Vatican as immoral and banned on beaches in Spain. Modern Girl Magazine sniffed, “It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.”

But the bikini finally did catch on. In 1957, bombshell Brigitte Bardot famously wore one in “And God Created Woman.” In 1960, Brian Hyland’s song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” hit No. 1 on Billboard. A wave of bikini films began in 1963 with “Beach Party,” starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. A year later, Sports Illustrated feature a bikini model on its cover for the first time.

Debuting in 1989, “Baywatch” became the world’s most popular TV show; although the show had more than its share of bikinis, its well-endowed lady lifeguards usually wore one-piece swimsuits. Bikini sales dropped and one-piece suits made a comeback in the 1980s and 1990s.

Aylward has seen that trend, adding that most women feel more comfortable wearing one-piece swimsuits. Behl noted, however, that many of today’s one-piece suits reveal a lot of skin. “Even the one-pieces are contoured so they look like a two-piece,” she says.

Behl said it has also become popular for women to match one bikini top with a different bikini bottom, customizing an outfit to match their physique. “Everyone’s body is different,” she says.

Surrounded as they are by images of svelte models in revealing outfits, do women feel any pressure to wear bikinis?

“I don’t think, in this day and age, you feel pressured to wear something you’re not comfortable with,” Aylward said.

Behl says many of her customers buy a very risqué bikini, which they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing on a Chicago beach, for a special trip to an exotic place like Brazil.

Réard, who died in 1984, said in his later years that bikinis did not leave enough up to the imagination.

“A woman is like a beautiful package,” he said in 1974. “You want to untie the ribbon, take off the beautiful paper, open it, and see what’s inside. A woman seminude has lost a lot of her attraction.”