During World War II (1939–45) the United States government directed that the amount of cloth in women's beachwear be reduced by 10 percent to conserve fabric which was needed in the war effort. As a result swimsuit manufacturers produced suits featuring bare midriffs. Such garments, however, were downright conventional when compared to what was to come right after the war, with the invention of the bikini: a skimpy, two-piece bathing suit consisting of a bra top and two reversed cloth triangles attached by a string.
The bikini was devised separately but simultaneously in 1946 by two Frenchmen, Louis Réard (1897–1984) and Jacques Heim (1900–1967). Réard, an engineer, named his creation after Bikini, a Pacific Ocean atoll, a string of coral islands, where the United States government was testing nuclear bombs. Heim, a clothing designer, named his version atome, the French word for atom, and announced that it was the world's smallest bathing suit. Réard countered his competitor by calling the bikini smaller than the world's smallest bathing suit. Both parts of his suit consisted of only thirty inches of fabric. It was in fact so tiny that no French model would wear it in public. A nude dancer finally agreed to be photographed wearing one. After a picture of her in Réard's bikini was published, she received close to fifty thousand fan letters.
At first the bikini was considered risqué and was even banned in beauty pageants and on many European beaches. Its rise in popularity was directly linked to its being worn by attractive young movie actresses. British actress Diana Dors (1931–1984) wore a mink bikini at the 1955 Venice Film Festival, and American stars Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962) and Jayne Mansfield (1932–1967) were photographed in them in the 1950s. The 1950s screen icon who most famously put on the bikini was Brigitte Bardot (1934–), a French movie star. Bardot wore it on the French Riviera and in the film Et Dieu … céa la femme (1956), also known as … And God Created Woman.
The bikini was not worn on American beaches until the 1960s, when its rise as an acceptable mode of swimwear was linked to popular culture. First, pop singer Brian Hyland (1943–) celebrated the bikini with his hit song, "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" (1960). The lyrics depicted a woman, wearing a bikini for the first time, who was "afraid to come out of the water" because she was embarrassed by her scanty attire. A couple of years later, it was boldly worn by Ursula Andress (1936–) in Dr. No (1962), the first James Bond movie. Bikinis then became the favored attire in a cycle of popular, teen-oriented sun-and-surf movies, beginning with Beach Party (1963). The word even was worked into the titles of a number of these films: Bikini Beach (1964); How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965); Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965); The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966); and It's a Bikini World (1967). Raquel Welch (1942–) wore a fur bikini playing a cavewoman in One Million Years B.C. (1966). By then the bikini was fast becoming a basic beach outfit.
Women favored bikinis because of their stylishness and the liberating nature of their design; wearing them provided women the opportunity to publicly display their bodies. Men liked bikinis because they showed off more of the female body.
Alac, Patrick. The Bikini: A Cultural History. London, England: Parkstone Press, 2002.
Baker, Patricia. Fashions of a Decade: The 1940s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.