On July 5, 1946, a French designer named Louis Réard debuted his women’s bathing suit design at a pool party. The bits of waterproof fabric held together with string were too shocking for every model he tried to put it on, except for one. Micheline Bernardini, an exotic dancer from Paris, let Réard style her in his creation, and women’s bathing suits haven’t looked the same since.
In the fallout from the bikini’s debut, the Vatican declared the bathing suit “sinful,” and it was legally banned from beaches all over the world. Though it was a French invention, the bikini’s popularity among American women led to the term “bikini,” which was a sly nod to American hydrogen bomb testing on Bikini Atoll. The new bathing suit, which only covered a woman’s butt crack, nipples, and vulva, had a near-nuclear effect on society. Advertisers called it an “anatomic bomb.”
It wasn’t just the near-nudity that shocked beachgoers; the bikini bottom’s shape meant that women had to remove their pubic hair from their upper thighs and around their outer vaginal lips. At the time, grooming one’s pubic hair, and removing that much of it, was taboo, but in order to wear the trendy new outfit, women had to figure out in private how they were going to appear bare.
2017 has seen a resurgence in sexy “one-piece” bathing suits, though Louis Réard’s label is attempting to popularize the bikini once more. Réard Paris, the line started by the bikini’s inventor, has re-launched this year in honor of the bikini’s 70th birthday, with 28 new styles inspired by the classic original.