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National Bikini Day: How Four Little Triangles of Fabric Changed the World

By Beth Clark • July 05, 2018

The Ancient Bikini

The modern bikini debuted on July 5, 1946, thus the reason we're celebrating National Bikini Day today, but the archeological discovery of a fourth century mural depicting women wearing bandeau-style tops and what could easily be present-day bikini bottoms is evidence that the true debut occurred over 1,500 years ago in Sicily. The ingenuity of Ancient Rome produced countless other modern marvels, including bound books. The mural's home, Piazza Armerina in the Villa del Casale, was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, preserving it for future bikini historians.

The Genesis of the Modern Bikini

Credit for inventing the bikini goes to Louis Réard, a French mechanical engineer who became a clothing designer after taking over his mother's lingerie business. In a race with Jacques Heim to create the world's smallest bathing suit, Réard designed the first bikini using only 30 square inches of fabric cut into four triangles. He declared that a bathing suit only qualified as a bikini if it could be pulled through a wedding ring.

Réard wasn't the first designer to create a two-piece, but he was the first one to create one that showed a woman's—gasp—belly button! Exposed navels were taboo at the time. Seventy-two years later, bikinis expose even more than Réard's original version and are barely noticed. For the more modest crowd, today's two-piece styles also cover the other end of the spectrum and even navels, depending on the design.

How the Bikini Got Its Name

Réard intentionally named his two-piece garment after Bikini Atoll, where atomic bomb testing had commenced only four days earlier. Knowing his scandalous creation would be met with a tidal wave of controversy, he intended the name "bikini" to shock society and elicit the same explosive reaction as the bomb. (It worked.)

The Bikini's Debut

In 2018, it's hard to fathom society's horrified reception of Réard's masterpiece(s), which was so strong that the models he hired for a poolside fashion show at the popular Piscine Molitor in Paris wouldn't wear it. They adamantly refused, so the fame (or infamy) of being the first woman to wear a bikini in public goes to 19-year-old nude dancer Micheline Bernardini.

The Evolution of the Bikini

From itsy-bitsy to modest, back to teeny-weenie, and everything in betweenie, the bikini has evolved with the times, and the emancipation of swimsuits paralleled the emancipation of women. After its unveiling in 1946, it slowly gained acceptance in the 50s despite being banned by several US states and European countries and formally deemed "sinful" by the Vatican. World War II fabric rationing played a big role in the bikini's continued upward trajectory despite the pushback.

By the 60s, the popularity of private pools and bikini-clad "bombshells" Brigitte Bardot, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Ursula Andress, and Raquel Welch helped the bikini earn approval in the US, but it was wholesome Mouseketeer Annette Funicello who turned the tide. Donning a bikini finally became acceptable in mainstream America, where it's now a $14 billion industry...and a favorite of fiction authors:

So, whether you wear it, Instagram it, frame photos of it, or just admire it, give your bikini some love on #NationalBikiniDay!

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