Though it seems eternally youthful, the bikini is turning a ripe 70 years old today. And while it’s become a symbol of California-girl insouciance, it was actually invented in France. Engineer turned designer Louis Réard came up with the concept after seeing women in St. Tropez rolling the edges of their swimsuits for tanning. He named his invention after the South Pacific’s Bikini Atoll, a site of atomic-bomb testing, in the hope that it would cause the same kind of mushroom-cloud impact.
He showed the style, a memorable newspaper-print two-piece worn by showgirl Micheline Bernardini (recruited because models refused to wear it), at the Piscine Molitor in Paris on July 5, 1946. Bernardini held a matchbox to show that the design was small enough to fit into a matchbox.
While earlier two-piece swimsuits had a modest cut, the bikini stood out for its navel-exposing design. (Réard was effectively one-upping Jacques Heim, whose own similarly nuclear-themed design, L’Atome, had been advertised as “the world’s smallest bathing suit” a few months earlier.) It created something close to the explosive reaction its designer predicted — the Vatican declared wearing a bikini a sin, and it was banned in countries as forward-thinking as Italy, Spain, and Australia. Women were slow to embrace the daring style at first, but soon, it took over beaches worldwide, helped along by the co-sign of emerging bombshell Brigitte Bardot.
As for the Réard brand, it enjoyed several decades of popularity but disappeared in the ‘70s. Now it is being brought back under new management and coming full circle: According to a release from the company today, the first design will be a version of its original newspaper-print style, in honor of the anniversary.