In 1946, the first post-war atom bomb was exploded on a small island in the Pacific called Bikini Atoll. A few months later, a French engineer, Louis Reard, came up with an idea for the briefest two-piece swimming costume ever. He named it after the island, and a new word came into the world’s vocabulary. What made Reard’s bikini special was its size – or lack of it. Two-piece bathing costumes were not new. They had been introduced in the 1920s and popularised over the next decade in Hollywood movies. But most women found them vulgar and unflattering – the only alluring thing about them was that they bared the midriff. Towards the end of the 1930s, stretch fabrics and the newly invented nylon made the two-piece bathing costume a much more sophisticated garment. The bottom half was elasticised like a foundation garment, helping to give the illusion of a flat stomach, while the bra top gave film-star uplift. A few brave women began to wear the two-piece, although only on the more sophisticated and fashionable beaches.
The second world war put paid to beach holidays, and nobody gave much thought to swimwear until Reard dropped his own personal bombshell. There were cries of shock, but, after the dreariness of the war years, they were equalled by yells of delight at the sexiness of the bikini. Even so, it took time to catch on. What the bikini needed was some blatant publicity – and it got it at Cannes in 1954, when a starlet dropped her bikini top at a photocall for the actor Robert Mitchum. The photographers’ feeding frenzy left two paparazzi with broken bones. The following year, Diana Dors made a tasteful entry on a gondola at the Venice film festival, wearing a mink bikini valued at £500. The rest is history. Bardot, in And God Created Woman – and, unforgettably, Ursula Andress rising out of the waves carrying a dangerous-looking knife in Dr No – confirmed the bikini’s status as a numero uno sexy item empowering women by making men slaver. Who says size doesn’t matter? (First published June 2006)