The Bikini at 50

updated 07/08/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/08/1996 01:00AM

GIVENCHY IMBUED AUDREY HEPBURN WITH ELEGANCE, AND Cassini made Jackie Kennedy chic. But France's Louis Réard did the most with the least. Fifty years ago, using four tiny triangles of fabric and a handful of string, the former Peugeot engineer (and part-time costumer) stitched up a cheeky little creation, then craftily called it the bikini, after the Pacific atoll where the U.S. had just tested an atomic bomb. After all, he explained, it was "an explosive fashion."

Little did he know. When he unveiled it at a Paris swimming pool before 10,000 people on July 5, 1946, no professional model would pose in it. Instead, Reard enlisted showgirl Micheline Bernardini and launched a scandal: The Vatican denounced the suit as "immoral," and it was prohibited in Spain and Italy. No one was happier than Reard (except maybe Bernardini, who reportedly received more than 50,000 letters and proposals over the next year). "He was an excellent designer," says Parisian lingerie maker Poupie Cadolle, "but more, a brilliant promoter." Soon, Réard's risqué design was the rage of the Riviera, where, recalls fashion illustrator René Gruau, 88, "each season, little by little, you saw more bikinis and each season, little by little, they got smaller."

Designer Anne Cole, whose father founded the swimsuit firm Cole of California, first saw them in Europe in the early '50s. "It was a new world," she says. "The bikini was so with-it, so exciting." Still, says Richard Martin, curator of New York City's Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute, it wasn't mainstream. "Celebrities wore bikinis," he says. But if the bikini boosted the careers of Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch, they in turn helped make it popular. Bikinis have gone triumphantly global, diminishing to near invisibility in liberated locales like Rio. Réard (he died at 87 in 1984) would be proud. He'd also tried variations—his Chaméléon suit changed colors—but nothing topped the original.

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