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Bikini history: 1946 design still popular nearly 80 years later

The modern backless bikini, though adorned with a tie or a unique charm, is almost identical to the creation of the first daring official two-piece set in the 1940s, which put men and women off it for about two decades due to its lack of conservatism.

On July 5, 1946, 18-year-old French exotic dancer Micheline Bernardini brazenly donned nature's first black-and-white bikini during a press conference at a public swimming pool in Paris.

Louis Raiard, a renowned French mathematician turned clothing designer, has been combining women's bikini designs for nearly 80 years in an attempt to attract attention. He hoped that bikinis with newspaper clippings would cause shock and awe like the atomic bomb in 1945. Bernardini's photographs that appeared on the front pages of newspapers did just that.

Louis Raiard designed the first two-piece swimsuit with the bottom cut below the navel. French exotic dancer Micheline Bernardini was hired to show off a bikini in front of the press on July 5, 1946. (Photo by Bateman via Getty Images | Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Réard hired Bernardini to strut before the camera in his thong and triangle top designs, while professional runway models refused to wear the barely-there swimsuit.

Bernardini received about 50,000 letters from fans, mostly men, following media coverage of the ordeal, according to

The largely fabric-free design was labeled “Bikini” by Reard after a nuclear warhead test on the tiny island of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean earlier that week.

Although adoration for Bernardini grew quickly for the 30-inch cotton and jersey, Réard's designs struggled to strike a chord with American wearers until the 1960s. In the 1950s, European women began wearing skimpy bikinis, although Spain and Italy banned the suit style on public beaches in the early 1950s.

There was some shortage of swimsuits due to material rationing during World War II.

French exotic dancer Micheline Bernardini was hired when professional catwalk models refused to wear skimpy two-piece outfits in public. She received around 50,000 fan letters after her photo was printed. (AFP via Getty Images)

World War II put a heavy burden on supply rationing in the United States and Britain, and restrictions were placed on items such as food, shoes, and clothing, among other supplies, for preservation.

To purchase rationed items, people had to pay for both food and materials and pay “points” at the time of purchase. People with children were given points in the form of blue and red stamps for various selected items.

If an item is easily accessible but rationed, it costs less than an item in high demand. In 1943, a pound of bacon cost 30 cents and 7 points, according to the National World War II Museum.

In terms of clothing, Britain rationed fabric in 1941. According to the Imperial War Museum website, a woman's dress cost 11 points and a man's shirt required 8 points.

The length of men's shirts was restricted, and double cuffs on collared shirts were completely banned. In addition, the price of clothing and cloth was limited. Some textiles, including silk, were completely out of reach for designers and manufacturers.

Nearly 80 years after the first two-piece bikini was launched and banned on some European beaches, the swimsuit remains popular with women around the world. (Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated)

At the time, women's fashion was not a priority and the selection of clothing for women was sparse. Since civilians were in the fashion business, they worked with what was available and affordable.

As the British and American governments continued their efforts to conserve for their nations, designers like Réard developed design and marketing strategies to appeal to the public and used raw materials and resources like cotton to create stylish garments that still met rationing requirements, thus the bikini

When World War II ended, so did the rationing program, but the bikini remained.

Although Réard provided the nomenclature, the bikini drama, and Bernardini's audience, his design was not the first two-piece swimsuit available to bathers, although it was the first to cut below the navel.

In 1946, fashion designer Jacques Heim, a rival of Riard, introduced what he called “the smallest bathing suit in the world” and named it after its size. However, his first designs were published in the 1930s.

According to the Museum of the Jewish People, Heim hoped to create the same level of excitement around Bitsy's beachwear as the detonation of an atomic bomb.

Although women have been appearing in bikinis poolside for nearly eight decades, the swimsuit remains a bright, attention-grabbing summer accessory.

Gabriel Regalbuto is a Senior SEO Editor at Fox News Digital. Gabrielle holds degrees in journalism and communications from West Virginia University. She has worked in content creation for newspapers, magazines, and digital platforms. At Fox, she has helped cover breaking news including the 2024 presidential cycle, the 2022 midterm elections, the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.

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