RCL Exclusive

The Bikini at 72: A Look at How the Timeless Two-Piece Has Changed

Today in 1946, the skimpy swimsuit was unveiled at a popular swimming pool in Paris.

Women By

Although we don’t know if fashion designer was first to invent it as both claimed to, we do know the most iconic two-piece swimsuit in history was first unveiled on July 5, 1946, at the Piscine Molitor swimming pool in Paris.

Worn by 19-year-old showgirl Micheline Bernardini, French automobile engineer and clothing designer Louis Réard called his swimsuit the “bikini” after an atomic test by the United States that was held off the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean earlier that week. In a similar atom-inspired vein, French fashion designer Heim called his skimpy suit the “atome” (as in as small as the particle). Sadly for him, that name didn’t blow up in quite the same way that Réard’s did.

The new ‘Bikini’ swimming costume (in a newsprint-patterned fabric), which caused a sensation at a beauty contest at the Molitor swimming pool in Paris. (Keystone/Getty Images)

But, Réard’s 30-square-inches-of-cloth suit was not an immediate hit.

Called “four triangles of nothing” by some newspapers at the time, the bikini was banned on some beaches including Spain, Italy, and Portugal, and was prohibited from being used in Hollywood films thanks to the United States Motion Picture Production Code which did not allow for the display of navels.

23rd July 1955: Models Jean and Jackie wearing the latest bikini fashion at a beach on the Riviera, France. Original Publication: Picture Post – 7850 – Five Girls On A Yacht – pub. 1955 (Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)

Viewed as indecent by many, a 1957 issue of Modern Girl wrote: “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.”

However, as beachgoers in areas that allowed the skimpy suit continued to wear it, Hollywood stars like Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jane Russell started to pose for photographs wearing the bikini, further raising its profile.

Jane Russell Wearing a Bikini (Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images)

By 1960, the bikini was beginning to be embraced in prudish America and was even immortalized in song by pop singer Brian Hyland when he recorded “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.”

Two years later, Swiss actress Ursula Andress brought the bikini even further into the spotlight of popular culture when she wore a white one while playing Honey Rider in the James Bond film Dr. No.

Ursula Andress, Swedish actress, wearing a white bikini and holding a conch shell in a publicity still issued for the film, ‘Dr. No’, 1962. The James Bond film, directed by Terence Young (1915-1994), starred Andress as ‘Honey Ryder’. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Around the same time, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon appeared in a string of movies including How To Stuff a Wild Bikini and Bikini Beach that centered on beach culture and, as their titles suggest, prominently featured Réard’s (or Heim’s) creation.

On the set of the American International Pictures feature film ‘Bikini Beach’ starring Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Harvey Lembeck, Keenan Wynn, Don Rickles, John Ashley, Martha Hyer. Here, actor and motorcycle enthusiast Keenan Wynn sits astride of his Triumph Thunderbird with actress Patti Chandler exiting the sidecar rig. (Eric Rickman/The Enthusiast Network/Getty Images)

For Americans who found the bikini objectionable, it was all downhill from there.

Sports Illustrated introduced its annual “Swimsuit Issue” in 1964 with a bikini-clad model on the cover. From there, it wasn’t long before we began seeing the bikini anywhere and everywhere.

During beauty contests …

Sonia Grandjean, MISS SWITZERLAND 1999, gives us a Sneak Peek of the Oscar de la Renta ”fun” swimsuit, the Official Swimwear Sponsor of the 1999 MISS UNIVERSE Pageant. (Ho/Miss Universe Organization)

At Formula One races …

BAR bikini-clad girls have a laugh during their beachwear photo shoot (Jed Leicester/EMPICS via Getty Images)

During beach volleyball matches …

Misty May (USA) and teammate Kerri Walsh celebrate after winning the women’s semi-finals of the 2004 Huntington Beach Open. (Tim Tadder/Corbis via Getty Images)

At Wimbledon …

Spectators (L-R) Megan Smyth, Jenni Drey and Michelle Davies wear tennis ball bikini tops as they wait for day tickets on day nine of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at Wimbledon on July 3, 2013, in London, England. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

During football games …

Daniela Melchor (C) of Gold Team is tackled by Nury Ximello (L) of Diamond Team during the game of the All Stars from Iberoamerican Bikini Football League, in Mexico City, on March 29, 2014. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

At the Preakness …

Bikini Contest contestants wait backstage in the infield prior to the 140th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 16, 2015, in Baltimore, Maryland. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

During bodybuilding contests …

Competitors in Bikini First Timers division pose during the Victoria State Bodybuilding Championships on October 4, 2015 at the Kingston Arts Centre in Melbourne, Australia. (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

And in the mud …

Women mud wrestling. (Getty)

“In 1946, France had just come out of the war and people had a need to live again,” Réard said during a 1974 interview about his creation. “I felt I had to design something that would make people understand that life can start over and be beautiful.”

Now, 72 years later, we can safely say mission accomplished.