With the regulations of World War II lifted and miles of beaches to be rediscovered, the 1946 population of Western Europe was ready to blow off some steam. The fashion industry, armed with restless designers and long-awaited materials, was prepared to answer this liberation movement with unprecedented construction and creativity — and with thousands of people flocking to the beach, the swimsuit presented the perfect opportunity for an avant-garde coup. Louis Réard of Paris, France, defined this period of swimsuit experimentation by engaging in an arms race with fellow swimsuit designer Jacques Heim. As 1946 wore on, Heim came out with his bikini-esque design and described it as “the world’s smallest bathing suit.” Réard promptly came out with his design and dubbed it “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit.” When Heim eventually named his design the “Atom” (presumably for its small proportions), Réard named his swimsuit after the United States’ attempt to split an atomic atom in half: Réard called it the “Bikini,” named after the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific where the Atomic test took place.
In Réard’s defense, his design utilized less fabric than Heim’s swimsuit — in fact, the difference was significant. Réard sewed his Bikini with just thirty inches of fabric; essentially using sections of triangles and connecting them by a string to create the body of the suit. In doing so, Réard openly defied the conventions of the 40’s and designed a suit that hinged the exposed female navel — a tactical move that proved scandalous and electrifying across the continent. Up through the Second World War, two-pieces were acceptable swimwear attire (albeit slightly risqué) as long the navel remained covered, thus preserving what Kelly Killoren Bensimon, author of The Bikini Book, described as fashion’s final “zone of contention.” Réard destroyed this “zone of contention” with the vigor and spirit of an entire country released from wartime life; he harnessed the cultural release and breathed life into fashion again, setting the tone for the daring fashion industry of the future.
When Réard’s swimsuit was initially brought to the public’s attention, he had trouble recruiting models to pose in the racy design — the only woman he could convince to model was the famous Parisian nude dancer, Micheline Bernardini. The photographs of Bernardini in the swimsuit was a wild success, sparking a bikini obsession along the western coast of Europe — you were either a brave supporter, or a loud opposer (beaches along Spain and Italy even took to banning the swimsuit altogether). But Réard never budged on the integrity of his design, instead stating that a two-piece swimsuit was not a bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.” With that, the bikini took hold over the next decade; eventually it took root in the United States in the late fifties and early sixties, thus cementing its magnitude in the history of fashion forever.