The Bikini: A Brief History


Here at KARMA XOC we are actively developing our new swimwear line and in that spirit I thought I would provide you with a “brief” history of the iconic bikini.

War Rationing Has Some Unintended Benefits

During the 1940s, fashion houses pushed the boundaries of bathing suits, exposing considerably more flesh than ever before. War rationing provided the stimulus for the two-piece, when the U.S. government ordered manufacturers to reduce the amount of fabric they used, resulting in the bare midriff. But it would be a Frenchman sitting on a beach in the South of France who worked out that there was money to be made from navel-gazing.


On July 5, 1946, French engineer Louis Réard designed a garment “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit.” Four days earlier, the United States military had conducted nuclear testing for its nuclear weapons program at a small group of islands in the Pacific Ocean: Bikini Atoll. Réard hoped that his invention would be as explosive as an atomic bomb and so he decided to call his new creation the bikini. At first, however, none of the Parisian models would dare to wear his design.

The Trendsetter

Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer, was the first woman ever to wear a bikini, during a July 11, 1946, showing for the press at the fashionable Piscine Molitor in Paris. When first introduced, no “respectable” model in Paris, or anywhere in Europe would wear the newly invented 2-piece swimsuit for women, so nude dancers in Paris were asked to model the new swimwear for the fashion press. The bikini, while short on material, but long on sex appeal, had an uncertain future. The bikini was so small it could fit into a matchbox, like the one Bernardini’s holding in the picture above. Needless to say, Bernardini received plenty of fan mail. However, while the bikini initially created an uproar in Europe, it soon became overwhelmingly popular on European beaches. But it would not be until the 1960’s that the bikini would hit America’s beaches, even though it was U.S. ordered war rationing that gave life to the two-piece classic.

A 3400 Year-Old Bikini?

Many attribute this 2-piece women’s classic to Réard, but history actually tells a different story. Contrary to popular belief, the bikini was actually an ancient invention, as illustrated by this 4th century Roman mosaic from Villa Romana Del Casale in Sicily, Italy. Going back even further, two-piece garments were worn by women (for athletic purposes) as early as 1400 B.C. and are depicted on Greek urns and paintings from that period. While not as fashionable as modern versions, the ancient bikini served it’s purpose by covering areas of a woman’s body that then prevailing notions of decency and acceptability deemed in need of coverage from gawkers. That sentiment still prevails today (especially in the United States), hence the need for a modern version of this iconic two-piece swimsuit.