Summer Inventions: A Brief History of the Bikini

This month in 1946, two French designers introduced the itsy bitsy teeny weeny bathing suit that revolutionized swim fashion.
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This month in 1946, two French designers introduced the itsy bitsy teeny weeny bathing suit that revolutionized swim fashion.
Marilyn Monroe Photo

Hollywood sex symbols like Marilyn Monroe helped popularize the bikini in the 1950s. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Nowadays seeing a bikini-clad woman on the beach doesn't raise any eyebrows, but the two-piece swimsuit has come a long way since its scandalous origins. In the early 20th century, women's bathing suits were traditionally one pieces with shorts and looser silhouettes, a far cry from the Brazilian two-pieces that models like Gisele Bundchen have made popular today.

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The movement from the modest one pieces to the bikini was gradual, with a couple shocking bumps along the way. Athletes and performers started appearing in midriff baring ensembles around the turn of the century, from nightclub mainstays like Josephine Baker (pictured right) to female Olympians. By the '30s, exposing the midriff was becoming more of a fashion norm, with couturier Madeleine Vionnet debuting a belly-baring evening gown and American designer Claire McCardell creating the first cut-out swimsuit – a one piece sans sides.

The '40s brought the two-piece swim suit, though the decade's take on revealing skin was reserved. The suits typically only exposed a sliver of skin between the top and bottom pieces – not nearly enough to get a good stomach tan!

The bikini as we know it got its start in 1946 when two designers in France separately introduced their two-piece creations. Both Louis Réard, a mechanical engineer and son of lingerie shop owners, and Jacques Helm, a fashion designer, landed on the concept of the two-piece suit just months apart. (Coincidence? Maybe.)

Helm called his minuscule creation the "Atome" (French for atom), and hired a skywriter to brand the sky in Cannes with the slogan: "Atome, the world's smallest bathing suit." Not to be outdone in the scandal department, Réard created an even smaller suit called the "bikini," named after islands in the Pacific Ocean and debuted it at a public pool in Paris on a stripper. He then bragged that his creation was so small it could be pulled through a wedding ring. Shocked yet? So was mainstream Europe – the bikini was banned on Italian and Spanish beaches.

Despite the outcry, the two-piece suit became a hit among women. By the '50s screen sirens like Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe were wearing the revealing suits in their films and in real life, and the surf culture of the '60s gave the bikini its day in the sun. Songs were written about the suits ("Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" by Bryan Hyland), Bond girls appeared in them, the bikini made its Playboy debut, and, yep, Sports Illustrated launched a swimsuit issue. 

Brigitte Bardot Photo

Brigitte Bardot poses in a bikini on the beach at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. (Patrick Morin/RDA/Getty Images)

The '70s and '80s paved the way for the high-cut bikini and the G-string, while the '90s popularized the bandeau top. By the dawn of the 21st century, nothing was off limits when it came to swimwear: bustiers, cut-outs, crocheted detailing…celebrities and women alike would try out almost any swimwear trend. So the next time you hit the stores to scoop up a summer suit, remember the birth of the bikini and its dare-to-bare evolution through fashion history.

Steff Yotka is the market editor at Fashionista.