The bikini was invented by a French car engineer, Louis Réard, in 1946 while he was running his mother’s lingerie business. The reaction it caused was explosive, leading him to name it the bikini after the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, a group of tiny islands where nuclear weapons were being tested that year.
About the same time, French fashion designer Jacques Heim was introducing a similar two-piece beach costume billed as the “world’s smallest bathing suit.”
But Réard’s scrap of a suit—more like a string bikini—took only 30 square inches of fabric and exposed the belly button. Although Heim’s swimwear was the first to appear on beaches, it was Réard’s design that caught on with Europeans. Women were finally free from wet, clammy cloth hugging their middles.
The public was shocked at the time, and finding a woman to model it was difficult. Yet there’s historical evidence that scanty, two-piece bathing suits date back to ancient Greco-Roman times.
In America, Hollywood stars like Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner made two-piece swimsuits popular in the 1940s, but the teeny, tiny bikini was slow to catch on. It wasn’t until the 1960s that American girls began wearing the low cut suits on the beach.
Today women have made the bikini the most popular swimsuit design in the world.