awriterrambles











Four Little Triangles … and a handful of string.

It’s been called teenie weenie and eenie meenie, and it’s probably done more for man’s heart rate than an hour of jogging could ever do.  And although it’s tiny, its eye-popping debut in 1946 sent shock waves careening around the world.

Doing the most with the least, French couturier and civil engineer, Louis Beard, took four pieces of cotton, two strings and a prayer, and voila the first bikini, a cheeky little number, exploded onto the fashion scene.

Speculation touted that this swimsuit sensation got its name from the Bikini Atoll in the North Pacific’s Marshall Islands, where the atomic bomb was tested. In reality, Beard never revealed why he chose that name, leaving swimsuit aficionados to ponder what he had in mind. Was it named for the island’s minute size, or the exotic and revealing garments worn by the atoll’s female inhabitants before the bombing? Or possibly for the destruction wrought by an atomic weapon, much like a well-endowed woman in a bikini devastates every male in her path? These are questions that remain unanswered. But one thing is certainly clear, no swimwear design since the bikini’s inception has been more uniquely titled, made such an impact on human modesty, nor launched such a scandal.

As the story goes, no respectable professional model of that era would pose in Beard’s creation. Undaunted, on July 5, 1946 he hired striptease dancer and show girl Micheline Bernardini to launch his design before 10,000 people at a Paris pool party. The reaction was one of complete shock, and it reverberated around the globe.

In America, noted and respected swim star, Esther Williams, adamantly refused to be seen in a bikini, and in Europe when the Vatican denounced it as immoral, it was immediately banned in Italy, Spain, Portugal and Belgium. Negative publicity or not, Bernardini loved it, and after her appearance in the scant costume she received more than 50,000 letters and many proposals over the next few years.

Described in print as “a two-piece bathing suit that reveals everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden name,” it took a decade for Beard’s risqué design to finally catch on. It would be voluptuous sex-kitten, Brigitte Bardot, wearing Beard’s design while sauntering across the sand on the French Riviera at the Cannes Film Festival, that would cause European women of all shapes and sizes to rush out and buy one.

American women, however, ignored the “naughty little suit”  for years. And as late as 1959, Anne Cole, a major U.S. swimwear designer said of the bikini, “it’s nothing more than a G-string that’s at the razor edge of decency.”

In spite of all this opposition, the bikini was immortalized in a 1954 movie, Bikini Beach, starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. It was also made famous in Brian Hyland’s 1960s song, Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-dot Bikini, as well as in a drink named the Tahiti Bikini. (A mixture of  rum, vodka, rum liqueur, peach schnapps, Triple Sec, pineapple juice and orange juice with optional slices of mango).

Further, its mainstream acceptance was validated in the late ’60s when the word bikini was added to Webster’s dictionary without the capital “B”. Then along with the sexual revolution  of that decade, its popularity gained momentum when women were encouraged by designers like Ellen Ann Dobrovir to “show off a good body if you have one.”

Finally in 1969 when the bikini was 40, and firmly ensconced as a favorite swimwear style, Cole, the stateswoman of swimwear design, acquiesced to its impact stating, “once we were taught nice girls didn’t wear bikinis. But I guess nice girls went out  in the ’60s.”

By the time Beard died in 1984 at the age of 87, the bikini made up 20% of all swimsuit sales in the U.S. far more than any other model. Since that time the suits have marched triumphantly global, diminishing in size to near invisibility in locals like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And in the words of fashion designer, Rene Gruau, “each season, little by little, they get smaller and smaller.”

Although tiny in composition, the bikini demands heftier prices each year. From the original suit created by Beard, to the thong bikini, brainchild of designer Rudi Gernreich, to today’s more modest tankini, this sensational swimwear is still hot, hot, hot.

Scandalous or not, it’s obvious that the brainchild of Frenchman Louis Beard isn’t going away. And if he were alive today, he would probably find these developments something to crow about.

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