"A bikini is not a bikini unless it can be pulled through a wedding ring." --Louis Reard.
By the mid-1940s, a variety of bare-midriff two-piece silhouettes are established--in media, on the beach, and at the resort (CM4720). These combinations include bra, halter, bandeau, camisole and vest tops, coupled with shorts, skirted panties, but also with the increasingly skirtless and sheathless panty-cut briefs (LM48G5, SS5010).
But bare-midriff does not mean bare-naveled, for the difference between the bikini and the deux-pièces is indeed the exposure of the umbilicus, aka the navel, the belly button. Indeed, belly buttons for both sexes are repressed by "family" magazines, such as Life, and by Hollywood (SS4710, AB4810, SS4910). Dolores Del Rio, Rita Hayworth (RH4810), Lana Turner (LT4620), and Ava Gardner (AG4810) all model deux-pièces, but not bikinis, and exposures of their navels are rare, if not non-existent. In fact for some Hollywood stars, like the aquatic Esther Williams, even the deux-pièces are an exception (EW4810).
Navels had been exposed during the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s on theater stages and in the movie theater, but they are severely repressed during the Hayes period. When it does appear it is often airbrushed into oblivion (GM4810). The woman who places her navel into play is a brave one; the most coy way of doing this is having a waistline right at the navel, so that the belly button only gets exposed when the bikiniite performs the right moves, like stretching her arms, or pulling her stomach in (PC4510), an exposure detailed in navelage, which attempts to explain the power of this birthmark and the struggle to expose it during the late twentieth century. Which brings us to the bikini. For once the navel is exposed the very worst fears of the censors are realized; the bikini can now shrink in size and expose more, and more, and more of the skin below the navel, right down to..., well, here, look at the graph (BSD8820).
The Birth of The Bikini
The bikini advances the two-piece with the added attraction of an exposed belly button. It is a product of the Nuclear Age, and takes its name from the homeland of 167 grass-skirted Micronesian natives, an obscure part of the world called Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. On June 30, 1946, after the natives are evacuated, Bikini Atoll becomes the site of the fourth atomic bomb explosion on Earth, dropped from a B-29 aircraft over a fleet of 95 ships anchored in the lagoon, including the remains of the Japanese Navy. The event is broadcast worldwide and is spectacular.
The labeling of the bikini is attributed to the French. First, at Cannes, where a couturier uses a skywriter to label his new creation "L'atome--the world's smallest bathing suit," only to outdone by Parisian swimwear designer Louis Réard, who, on July 18, 1946, two weeks after the Bikini Atoll nuclear blast, introduces, "Bikini--smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world."
Réard is the owner of a swimsuit shop in Paris and the world's first bikinier. At first, the professional models of Paris refuse to wear Réard's risqué two-piece halter and low-cut string brief, debating amongst themselves how much skin they can show. The assignment is finally accepted by a Parisian dancer and model, Michèle Bernadini, who models Réard's concoction poolside for the Paris fashion press (LR4601). At 129 square inches, the string triangle top is small, and the string briefs are cut well below the navel; they are quite cheeky, and way ahead of their time with the strings.
Réard's famous fashion statement changes the world; like the bomb, the bikini is small and devastating. Vogue editor Diana Vreeland calls the bikini "the atom bomb of fashion," and a Paris fashion writer suggests it is the image of a woman emerging tattered from the blast. Perhaps the shock of seeing the Marshallese islanders in the nuclear age enable the Technologists to discover seeing themselves in the tribal age. And to enjoy it.
The immediate reaction, lasting perhaps through 1947, demonstrates a wild experimental excess, including coupling the low-waistline with the lattice-side (VV4610), or the bare buttocks seen here or the very low waistline seen in L4701. To quote another source, "What it reveals is interesting, what it conceals is essential." Réard reverts to less daring designs, but never retreats on the navel (LR4602). By 1950, things are more under control, and the world is ready for starlets like Brigitte Bardot to bring the culotte nombril to the real beach. The buttocks remain covered and will remain so until the 1980s, while the lower belly will get slowly revealed during the next 30 years.
The bikini catches on slowly. At a time when the bikini is being born, Miss America and othrs are still wearing a skirt (BM4610) or a sheath (DW4910, PC5010) over their crotch, and some high fashion barely bares the belly (AM4710). Even in France the bikini is only pioneered by pin-up girls who are willing to cross the line and appear in more male-oriented publications, such as photography magazines like U.S. Camera, who shows bikini-clad girls in 1947 (fig. 15-5), although models are still wearing shelf bras and shorts at the turn of the decade (US5002). This validates one of the central hypothesis, that exposures develop faster in specialty literature than in family literature, the movies and on the beach. Life finally shows the bikini in 1949, calling it "the atom," and shows it being worn at poolside in Los Angeles (LA4910). Never a publication to miss a beat, Life makes sure we can see the untanned skin below the old waistline. That's hot.