The French bikini

World's Largest Bikini Parade, Las Vegas, Nevada. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
With all the to do over the replay of American Idol’s “bikini girl” audition, and Kara Dioguardi’s followup with a bikini flash this week, I thought I’d take a look at the history of the bikini.
Two French fashion designers, Louis Reard and Jacque Heim are credited with creating the world’s briefest swimsuits in 1946, and by 1947, French bikinis were marketed in France. At the same time, the atomic bomb continued to be tested near the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. There’s some speculation as to how exactly the skimpy swimwear came to be named the bikini, but we can agree that both the atomic bomb and the bikini were “shocking” for their time. Comparing the size, or more accurately the coverage, of a bikini swimsuit to the atom, or even to the size of the tiny Bikini Atoll in the vast Pacific Ocean, it’s easy to come up with a variety of reasons for the name, as Reard’s creation took only 30 square inches of fabric.
The bikini made its way to the French Riviera soon after its introduction and quickly spread across Europe. While the bikini did make it to the U.S. market, many who tried the fashion found the bikini banned from the beach or at risk of being arrested for indecent exposure. It took some time for the bikini to find acceptance in the public arena in America where social mores and attitudes began to loosen up with the arrival of rock and roll by the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1957, French sex kitten, Bridget Bardot appeared on a beach in a French bikini in And God Created Woman which made it to a few art theaters in the United States.
In August 1960, the pop tune, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” hit the pop charts. The song captured just how skimpy the daring swimwear could be and how brave a girl had to be to wear one – or how timid the song’s character was when she did. The 1959 movie, Gidget, had brought the California surfing scene to the big screen and was certain to have boosted the beach scene on both coasts. The time was finally ripe for the bikini to step out onto American beaches, although Hollywood still had to tow the line with a little more coverage than a true bikini could provide with its triangular patches and connective string. With such splash and dash movies as Beach Party (1963), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1966) hitting the big screen, modesty, along with a little more fabric, went a long way in the theaters.
In more recent decades, nudity, language, violence, and the occasional wardrobe malfunction have found their way into the movies and television programming, yet the bikini retains its ability to shock and titillate the public, giving us all something to talk about.
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