Meet the French 19-year-old nude dancer, women (and men) can thank for popularizing the Bikini

Meet the French 19-year-old nude dancer, women (and men) can thank for popularizing the Bikini

Some heroes don’t wear capes – they wear bikinis.

CultureJune 06, 2019 By Will Brendza

This world would undoubtedly be a shittier place without bikinis — for both sexes.

Beaches would still be full of conservative swimwear, navels might still be hidden, bellies would be pale, women wouldn’t be able to so freely flaunt their rockin’ bods, and men wouldn’t be able to so freely enjoy them. Leftover Victorian era modesty might still have a hold on women’s swimsuits if not for a global textile shortage, and one French nude dancer who had the balls to be the first woman to rock a bikini in public: Micheline Bernardini.

Let’s back up for some background, though. Because, it’s important to understand that this sexy invention wasn’t designed for the sake of fashion — it wasn’t created just because women wanted to show more skin — it was created out of post-war necessity.

The world had just emerged from the second World War, Europe was in tatters, and just about every nation on Earth was still recovering economically, culturally and socially from that ugly chapter in history. And, every nation on Earth was also suffering from a global textile shortage.

Which meant, there wasn’t enough material for clothes-makers to make clothes out of. Luxuries like full-body women’s swimming gowns were becoming harder to justify. Someone needed to come up with a better, smaller, sexier way for women to get wet without getting naked.

 Turn of the century cuties showing off their hot Victorian era "swimming costumes."

Enter, Louis Réard, a French lingerie designer with a knack for making women’s underwear. Réard saw some of the two-piece swimsuits that were starting to pop up around the time, and he was unimpressed. Sure, they showed shoulders and collarbones, they showed some thigh and a little midriff, but none of them dared to reveal a woman’s bellybutton. A girl might as well walk around with her tits hanging out. The bellybutton was the final sexy frontier. Kelly Killoren Bensimon, who wrote “The Bikini Book,” called that last inch of midriff fashion’s last “zone of contention.”

Well, Reard was going to change all that — with a little thing he called “the Bikini” (named after Bikini Atoll, where they were busy splitting atoms at the time, the smallest known forms of matter in the universe). His design was tiny enough to fit inside a shot glass, using only 30 square inches of fabric, and covering only the bare minimum: breasts and peaches; leaving the novel navel totally exposed.

The only problem? No self-respecting woman in her right mind would dare to wear such a scandalous, revealing, outfit in public. Or, perhaps more accurately, no woman wanted to be the first one to do so.

That was, until a 19-year-old French nude dancer volunteered herself and her body to the historic task. Micheline Bernardini was not afraid of raising eyebrows or being stared at. Hell, that’s how she made her living.  

So, one warm July day in 1946, she slipped into the slim little swimsuit for a photoshoot at a public pool in Paris, and became the first woman in history to wear a bikini.

             Micheline Bernardini making history as the first woman to wear a bikni in public, holding the tiny little 6"x6"x6" box the garment fit inside of. A true hero. 

And just like that the levy broke, and women everywhere started buying into the bikini. Réard got tens of thousands of fan letters (mostly from men, but some from women too) thanking him for his contribution to society, praising him for making life on planet Earth so much sexier.

As for Bernardini? She moved to Australia after becoming internationally famous for her bikini exploits, and continued her dancing/performing career Down Under, working and appearing in revues at the Tivoli Theatre in Melbourne. Eventually she settled down, married an American soldier and moved to the United States, where she still lives today.

If it hadn’t been for Micheline Bernardini and her youthful willingness to shatter the stagnant status-quo of yesteryear, there’s no knowing how long it would have taken for something like the bikini to take off. She stepped into the spotlight, put her body on the line, exposed herself to the world and she changed history for the better in the process.

Some heroes don’t wear capes — some just wear bikinis. And that’s all they need.