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Secrets of the Bikini: A History Guide

Though the bikini made waves when it first appeared in the late 1940s, the origins of the revealing two-piece date back much further. Similar garments were worn by female Grecian athletes as far back as 1400 BC, while primitive artworks from Asian Minor push the garment back another 4000 years.  Those weren’t exactly bikinis, though.

A mosaic from the Ancient Roman Villa Romana del Casale near Sicily is one of the earliest depictions of a bikini-like garment. Credit: Andreas Wahra, Public Domain
A mosaic from the Ancient Roman Villa Romana del Casale near Sicily is one of the earliest depictions of a bikini-like garment. Credit: Andreas Wahra, Public Domain

Named after Bikini Island, the modern bikini was invented in 1946 by a French automobile engineer named Louis Réard. While running his mother’s shoe store, he became embroiled in a rivalry with his contemporaries to create the world’s smallest swimsuit. In a leap of faith (and perhaps good taste), Réard created what would eventually become a worldwide fashion trend when he took the bold move to expose the navel. Though two-pieces did exist at the time, the bottoms were higher-waisted than Réard’s creation and thus less revealing.

 

Pin-up model Esther Williams dons a more conservative two-piece.
Pin-up model Esther Williams dons a more conservaitve two-piece. Credit: 'Yank, the Army Weekly,' Public Domain

Though the bikini did not immediately catch on, its appearances in popular media, including films like the James Bond classic ‘Dr. No’ and songs such as ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,’ eventually led to the bikini’s widespread acceptance.

 

Unable to find a traditional model for his revealing swimsuit, Réard employed 19-year-old nude dancer Micheline Bernardini to model his bikini at at a beauty contest in Paris.
Unable to find a traditional model for his revealing swimsuit, Réard employed 19-year-old nude dancer Micheline Bernardini to model his bikini at at a beauty contest in Paris. Credit: Getty Images

The bikini, of course, continues to evolve. In fact, just this week, a company known as Perfect Tan Bikini unveiled a new line that allows women to go strapless at the beach. Check out the wacky new design in our gallery below.

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