The World’s Smallest Bathing Suit

Although archaeological evidence points to the existence of the bikini long before the twentieth century, documented history of the modern bikini begins the summer after the close of World War II. As France recovered from the reeling effects of the war on its home soil, Jacques Heim, a fashion designer from the popular beach resort of Cannes, was busily working on his latest style invention, a two-piece swimsuit of a very revealing nature. Heim debuted his creation in a local beach shop in the early summer of 1946. He named the swimsuit the “Atome” in honor of the recently discovered atom, the smallest particle of matter yet detected. He then sent skywriters over Cannes’ beaches, announcing that the Atome, “the world’s smallest bathing suit,” was now available for purchase (Lencek & Bosker 1989).

Heim may have become more than just a small footnote in the bikini’s history if it were not for the timely invention and superior christening skills of a French mechanical engineer turned swimsuit designer, Louis Reard. Just three weeks after Heim unveiled his Atome creation, Reard brought out a remarkably similar swimsuit to be sold along the French Riviera. His swimsuit also contained just two scant pieces of cloth that revealed a woman’s back and navel for the first time in the modern era. Reard named his swimsuit the “bikini,” taking the name from the Bikini Reef, one of a series of islands in the South Pacific where testing on the new atomic bomb was occurring that summer (Lencek & Bosker 1989). Historians assume Reard termed his swimsuit the “bikini” because he believed its revealing style would create reactions among people similar to those created by America’s atomic bomb in Japan just one summer earlier. Whether this was his true reason or not, the bikini name stuck, and Reard went down in history as the inventor of the popular two-piece swimsuit.

Outlawed and Embraced

Reard’s bikini was introduced to U.S. markets in 1947, just one year after its debut in France. 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.

Ursula Undress
An iconic moment in cinema history came in 1962, when Swiss actress Ursula Andress, playing Honey Rider in the James Bond film Dr. No, strode out of tropical Caribbean waters wearing her homemade bikini.

At most beaches and swimming pools, the bikini is by far the most popular swimsuit style worn today. Of course, the bikini has gone through several style evolutions during its 60-year history, ranging from the outrageous topless monokini of the 1960s to the more modest tankini of recent years. However, its timeless style and surprisingly flattering fit make it understandable why the bikini has been worn in one form or another since ancient Roman times.