A bikini is generally a women’s two-piece swimsuit.
The design is simple: two triangles of fabric on top cover the woman’s breasts and two triangles of fabric on the bottom cover the groin and the buttocks, leaving the woman’s midriff exposed.
What distinguishes the bikini from other swimsuits is its brevity. The size of the panty can range from full coverage to a revealing thong or g-string design.
The modern bikini was introduced by French engineer Louis Réard and separately by fashion designer Jacques Heim in Paris in 1946. Many western countries declared it illegal and the Vatican declared it sinful. Popularized by filmstars like Brigitte Bardot and Ursula Andress it became common in most western countries by the mid-1960s.
Further variants were added to the bikini family of beachwears and bathing costumes, contributing to the popular lexicon a variety of -kinis and -inis: monokini, microkini, tankini, trikini, pubikini, bandeaukini, skirtini and sling bikini. A man’s brief swimsuit may also be referred to as a bikini. A variety of men’s and women’s underwear are known as bikini underwear.
While the two-piece swimsuit as a design existed in classical antiquity, the modern design first attracted public notice in Paris on July 5, 1946.French mechanical engineer Louis Réard introduced a design he named the “bikini,” taking the name from the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, where, four days earlier, the United States had initiated its first peace-time nuclear weapons test as part of Operation Crossroads. The island’s English name is derived from the German name Bikini, given to the atoll when it was part of German New Guinea, which itself is transliterated from the Marshallese name for the island, Pikinni, meaning surface of coconuts. Réard hoped his swimsuit’s revealing style would create an “explosive commercial and cultural reaction” similar to the explosion at Bikini Atoll. His name for the garment stuck with the media and the public.
Through analogy with words, like bilingual and bilateral, containing the Latin prefix “bi-” (meaning “two” in Latin), the word bikini was first back-derived as consisting of two parts, [bi + kini] by Rudi Gernreich, who introduced the monokini in 1964. Later swimsuit designs like the tankini and trikini further cemented this false assumption. Over time the “–kini family” (as dubbed by author William Safire), including the “–ini sisters” (as dubbed by designer Anne Cole), expanded into a variety of swimwear, often with an innovative lexicon, including the monokini (also numokini or unikini), seekini, tankini, camikini, hikini (also hipkini), minikini, and microkini.
The origins of the two-piece swimsuit can be traced to antiquity, in Çatalhöyük, where a mother goddes is depicted astride two leopards wearing a costume somewhat like a bikini, and the Greco-Roman world, where bikini-like garments worn by women athletes are depicted on urns and paintings dating back to 1400 BC. In Coronation of the Winner, a mosaic in the floor of a Roman villa in Sicily that dates from the Diocletian period (286–305 AD), young women participate in weightlifting, discus throwing, and running ball games dressed in bikini-like garments (technically bandeaukinis in modern lexicon). The mosaic, found in the Sicilian Villa Romana del Casale, features ten maidens who have been anachronistically dubbed the “Bikini Girls”. Other Roman archaeological finds depict the goddess Venus in a similar garment. In Pompeii, depictions of Venus wearing a bikini were discovered in the Casa della Venere, in the tablinum of the House of Julia Felix, and in an atrium garden of Via Dell’Abbondanza.
Swimming or bathing outdoors were discouraged in the Christian West, and so there was little demand need for swimming or bathing costume until the 18th century. The bathing gown of the 18th century was an loose ankle-length full-sleeve chemise-type gown made of wool or flannel, so that modesty or decency was not threatened.
During the 1920s and 1930s, people began to shift from “taking in the water” to “taking in the sun,” at bathhouses and spas, and swimsuit designs shifted to accommodate this change. Rayon was used in the 1920s to manufacture tight-fitting swimsuits, but its durability, especially when wet, proved problematic; jersey and silk were also sometimes used. By the 1930s, manufacturers had lowered necklines in the back, removed sleeves, and tightened the sides. Hollywood endorsed the new glamor in films like Neptune’s Daughter in which Esther Williams wore provocatively named costumes such as “Double Entendre” and “Honey Child”. With the development of new clothing materials, particularly latex and nylon, through the 1930s swimsuits gradually began hugging the body, with shoulder straps that could be lowered for tanning.
Wartime production during World War II required vast amounts of cotton, silk, nylon, wool, leather, and rubber. In 1942 the War Production Board issued Regulation L-85, cutting the use of natural fibers in clothing and mandating a ten percent reduction in the amount of fabric in women’s beachwear. To meet the regulations, swimsuit manufacturers produced two-piece suits with bare midriffs.
The modern bikini was invented in Paris in 1946 separately by engineer Louis Réard, the official inventor, in July and fashion designer Jacques Heim in May. Réard was a car engineer but by 1946 he was running his mother’s lingerie boutique near Les Folies Bergère in Paris. Heim was working on a new kind of beach costume. It comprised two pieces, the bottom large enough to cover its wearer’s navel. In May 1946, he advertised it as the world’s “smallest bathing suit”. Réard sliced the top off the bottoms and advertised it as “smaller than the smallest swimsuit”. The idea struck him when he saw women rolling up their beachwear to get a better tan.
Réard could not find a model who was comfortable in front of camera wearing his revealing design. He instead hired Micheline Bernardini, a nude dancer from the Casino de Paris. He introduced his string bikini, featuring a g-string back of 30 square inches (200 cm2) of cloth with newspaper-type print, on July 5 at Piscine Molitor, a public pool in Paris. The bikini was a hit. Bernardini received 50,000 fan letters, many of them from men. Heim’s design was the first worn on the beach, but the design was given its name by Réard. Réard’s business soared. In advertisements he declared the swimsuit couldn’t be a genuine bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.”
French newspaper Le Figaro wrote, “People were craving the simple pleasures of the sea and the sun. For women, wearing a bikini signaled a kind of second liberation. There was really nothing sexual about this. It was instead a celebration of freedom and a return to the joys in life.” The early success of Bikini is partly attributed to post-war fabric rationing.