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The Bikini’s Inventor Guessed How Much It Would Horrify the Public

The modern bikini, named after Bikini Atoll where the atomic bomb was tested, was first unleashed on the world 67 years ago today

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As summer ramps up in the northern hemisphere, so do rates of bikini sightings. The skimpy bikini is a summer staple, the suit of choice for many women. And today, it turns 67 years old.

The name bikini was coined by Louis Reard, and it actually refers to Bikini Atoll, where atomic bomb testing took place. He chose the name because he hoped that the raunchy two-piece would elicit the same shock and horror that the atomic bomb did. Reard’s bikini rival, Jacques Heim, a fashion designer, was also designing a tiny suit; he wanted to name it “Atome,” in honor of the recently discovered atom. Seriously.

As we know now, Reard won out, but not before Heim bought a skywriter to announce that “the world’s smallest bathing suit” was now on sale. Reard’s version was actually much smaller, made of just 30 inches of fabric. In fact, it was so small that Reard had trouble finding anybody to model it. History.com says that he had to hire an exotic dancer named Micheline Bernardini who worked at the Casino de Paris to don the suit. Reard knew that the bikini would be a splash, so the first version that Micheline Bernardini wore had newspaper type printed on it—he was that sure his invention would make headlines. It did, and legend has it that he received 50,000 fan letters—mostly from men.

On July 5th, 1946, the bikini hit the shelves. In the Mediterranean, women quickly snatched up the suits. One year later it was introduced to the United States. Random History says that the bikini wasn’t an immediate success:

While consumers were certainly curious about the scandalously small amount of fabric that comprised the bikini, initial sales of the swimsuit were slow. Many Americans were shocked by its scantiness, and the bikini was even outlawed as a form of public attire in many U.S. cities (Alac 2001). It would be nearly 20 years, at the dawning of the sexual and moral revolution in the late 1960s, before American women truly embraced the bikini. But after that, there would be no turning back. American women–and men–began a love affair with the bikini that has lasted to this day.

Of course, like everything, the bikini was invented in Rome first. Illustrations from the 4th century in Rome show women wearing two piece athletic garments as early as 1400 B.C. So technically today is something like the 1700th anniversary of the bikini. But the Romans certainly didn’t have Reard’s gift for salesmanship. In the 1950s, he put out advertisements saying that it wasn’t a true bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.” In the 1960′s, pop singer Brian Hyland immortalized the suit in song, and today they appear as soon as the weather heats up.

More from Smithsonian.com:

How Bathing Suits Went From Two-pieces to Long Gowns and Back
The Bra Is 500 Years Older Than We Thought

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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