Friday 21 July 2017

The itsy-bitsy teeny weenie bikini turns 70: 5 of the most iconic moments in history

Amid much consternation, the first two-piece bathing costume was unveiled on July 5 1946. It's never lost its power

Not so haute couture: Micheline Bernardini, a 19-year-old exotic dancer, models the first bikini, designed by Louis Réard, for French press in 1946, causing worldwide controversy.
Not so haute couture: Micheline Bernardini, a 19-year-old exotic dancer, models the first bikini, designed by Louis Réard, for French press in 1946, causing worldwide controversy.
Kids in America: Taylor Swift celebrated July 4th in a red bikini.
Ursula Andress
Helen Mirren
Ashley Graham on Sports Illustrated
Brigitte Bardot
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

On this day 70 years ago - July 5 1946 - the press were invited to Paris's ritzy Piscine Molitor swimming pool to discover the 'world's smallest bathing suit'.

They may also have been invited to the world's shortest fashion show. The creation, by French engineer and part-time lingerie designer, Louis Réard, consisted of just four triangles of fabric fastened with spaghetti string ties - 30 inches of fabric in total.

In the words of the song, it was itsy bitsy teenie weenie. In the words of Réard, it revealed "everything about a girl except for her mother's maiden name".

Réard's design stoked controversy even before it was unveiled. All of the fashion models that he approached to take part in the show refused to wear his creation. He eventually persuaded Micheline Bernardinia, a 19-year-old exotic dancer at the Casino de Paris, to showcase his design. She would later receive somewhere in the region of 50,000 fan letters.

Not so haute couture: Micheline Bernardini, a 19-year-old exotic dancer, models the first bikini, designed by Louis Réard, for French press in 1946, causing worldwide controversy.
Not so haute couture: Micheline Bernardini, a 19-year-old exotic dancer, models the first bikini, designed by Louis Réard, for French press in 1946, causing worldwide controversy.

Réard knew he was about to provoke an incendiary reaction. His design was named after the nuclear tests on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific that had taken place four days earlier.

Sure enough, fashion writer Diana Vreeland described his design as the "atom bomb of fashion", but not everyone was an enthusiastic.

'Modern Girl' magazine decided that it was "hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing".

The controversy continued elsewhere. The bikini was banned in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and prohibited in a number of US states.

Meanwhile, the 1951 Festival Bikini Contest - which would later become the Miss World Contest - came under fire when the winner, Kiki Håkansson of Sweden, was crowned in a bikini. Pope Pius XII condemned the competition as sinful and Spain and Ireland threatened to withdraw from the pageant. Bikinis were later banned from the competition and replaced by evening gowns.

The movement continued to gather pace, though. It should also be noted that the bikini design began to emerge long before Réard designed a two-piece that was "small enough to fit inside a matchbox".

During the 40s, due to wartime fabric rationing, women began to wear swimsuits that exposed a flash of midriff.

They also began to feel confined by the constraints of the typical bathing suit. Réard apparently came up with his idea when he noticed women on the beaches of St Tropez rolling up the sides of their swimming costumes while tanning.

Still, despite the obvious demand, Réard's risqué design pushed the boundaries of decency and it was a few years before the bikini went mainstream.

Fashion historians credit actress Brigitte Bardot with popularising the design. She was a 22-year-old brunette when she was photographed wearing a two-piece on the beach during the 1953 Cannes Film Festival.

Sales of the two-piece soon exploded, as did Bardot's career. Later photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner wearing bikinis only increased demand.

Many more bikini designers began to emerge during the 50s, but Réard insisted that his creation was the one and only. If it wasn't skimpy enough to be pulled through a wedding ring, then it wasn't a real bikini, declared the canny marketer.

French fashion historian Olivier Saillard says the emancipation of swimwear has always been linked to the emancipation of women. The popularity of the bikini, he says, was due to the "power of women, and not the power of fashion". The now iconic cinematic bikini moments of the 1960s certainly back up his hypothesis. The white bikini that was worn by Ursula Andress in the 1962 James Bond film 'Dr No' was paired with a matching army knife belt. Even today, the image of her emerging from the water depicts the archetypal femme fatale.

When actress Raquel Welch wore a doe skin bikini in the 1967 movie 'One Million Years B.C.', it was seen as a symbol of female sexual empowerment in its most primal form.

The doe skin bikini never really caught on, though. Bikinis of the 50s and 60s were largely fashioned out of cotton and jersey.

Swimwear designers began to experiment with crochet in the 70s but this brief trend was superseded by the popularity of water-resistant spandex.

The 80s has been dubbed the decade that style forgot. This epithet certainly applies to the swimwear designed during that era. High-waisted, strapless and neon-hued, 80s bikinis were a triumph of form over function. The metal bikini worn by Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the 1983 'Star Wars' film 'Return of the Jedi' looked especially uncomfortable.

Bikinis became more functional in the 90s. The bandeau style was replaced by the spaghetti strap design of its earlier incarnation, while the high-waisted brief started to come back down to earth.

The residual taboos around bikinis also relaxed, no doubt helped by the launch of the Wonderbra. The bikini become the women's beach volleyball team's official uniform at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. In 1997, contestants in the Miss America Pageant were allowed to wear two-piece swimsuits.

This less-is-more fashion aesthetic burgeoned in the 00s when South American beach culture, and a new wave of supermodels led by Gisele Bündchen, sent the mercury rising. Attention shifted to below the waist and a toned Brazilian beach bum soon became the coveted body shape.

Meanwhile, words like 'squats' and 'lunges' entered common parlance and a medieval grooming technique known as the 'Brazilian wax' became a beauty phenomenon.

Nowadays, thanks to an abundance of choice, women are more inclined to choose bikinis that suit their body shape. Visit a high street shop and you'll discover high-waisted, retro-inspired numbers hanging alongside revealing cut-out styles. And an unusual design will still raise eyebrows: witness Taylor Swift, who this week had tongues wagging when she sported a patriotic 'America' zip-up racer-back top with matching bottoms to celebrate July 4th.

The birth of the bikini 70 years ago has given rise to monokinis, tankinis, skirtkinis and everything in between. Is it any surprise then that the one-piece is coming back into fashion?

Five iconic bikini moments

Micheline Bernardini, a 19-year-old exotic dancer (pictured main photo), became the first woman to wear a bikini in 1946 when she modelled the two-piece for the press at Paris's Piscine Molitor. The fashion models of the time refused to be seen wearing it.

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Brigitte Bardot

Brigitte Bardot caused a sensation when she was photographed wearing a bikini on the beach during the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. Sales of the bikini - and Bardot's career - skyrocketed.

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Ursula Andress

The image of actress Ursula Andress, above, emerging from the sea in a white bikini in 1962 James Bond film 'Dr No' has been written into the annals of cinema history. The original bikini sold for $60,000 at auction in 2001.

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Helen Mirren

When Dame Helen Mirren was photographed rocking a red bikini at the age of 63, she said: "'I think the thing that will haunt me for the rest of my life is that bloody photograph of myself in a bikini".

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Ashley Graham on Sports Illustrated

Ashley Graham became the first plus-size model to appear on the cover of 'Sports Illustrated' swimsuit edition earlier this year. The decision was divisive, with some critics arguing it promoted obesity.

Irish Independent

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