Seventy-two years ago this month, on July 5, 1946, French designer Louis Reard unveiled a daring two-piece swimsuit at the Piscine Molitor, a popular swimming pool in Paris. The new fashion, dubbed a “bikini,” was so shocking that the Vatican formally decreed the design sinful. Reard couldn’t have been happier. In fact, he hoped that the design would cause the same kind of mushroom-cloud impact as US atomic testing on Bikini Atoll earlier in the week.
The Bikini’s Atomic Origins
The dropping of a nuclear bomb in the Pacific Ocean on July 1, 1946, marked the first deployment of a nuclear weapon since the 1945 attacks on Japan. Importantly, this test was just the beginning. Sixty-seven nuclear tests were carried out between 1946 and 1958, including the explosion of the first H bomb in 1952.
The tests had major consequences on the geology and natural environment of Marshall archipelago.
Several coral islands became uninhabitable due to higher than predicted radiation levels.
The Smithsonian points out some things you might not know about the infamous tests:
- Humans were not the test subjects. The goal of the testing was to see what happened to naval warships when a nuclear weapon went off. Also, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, “some of the ships were loaded with live animals, such as pigs and rats, to study the effects of the nuclear blast and radioactive fallout on animals.”
- In total, more than 90 vessels, not all carrying live cargo, were placed in the target area of the bomb, which was named Gilda – after Rita Hayworth’s character in the popular film.
- Leonard P. Schultz, curator of ichthyology for the National Museum of Natural History, was there with colleagues to collect species and document the Atoll before and after the tests. They collected numerous specimens including sea and land creatures that remain in the museum’s collection today. According to the Smithsonian, the collections document the extent to which the diversity of marine life was affected by the atomic blasts, providing researchers who continue to study the health of the ecosystem with a means to compare species extant today with those collected before the tests.
- The first bomb missed its target, reducing the damage done to ghost ships.
- Over 167 Marshallese were displaced by the testing and have not been able to go back to their poisoned homes. It’s hard to know when the Atoll will ever be safe for their return even though the Marshall Islands, overall, are becoming less radioactive.
- Military authorities and scientists promised the Bikini Atoll’s residents that they would be able to return home after the nuclear tests. Meanwhile, most were moved to Rongerik Atoll and later to Kili Island. Both locations proved unsuitable to sustaining life, resulting in some starvation. The US later paid the islanders and their descendants $125 million in compensation for damage and displacement.
- In 2017, Stanford University scientists reported “an abundance of marine life apparently thriving in the crater of Bikini Atoll.” The ecosystem included schools of large fish, reef sharks and robust coral. Research is being undertaken on how marine organisms are surviving in a radiation-filled environment.
The Bikini: Factoids
The Bikini was not the first two piece bathing suit. European women first began wearing a halter top and shorts in the 1930s, but only a small slice of midriff was revealed and the belly button was covered.
In the US, a modest two piece appeared during World War II, when fabric became scarce due to wartime rationing. According to The Smithsonian, a US Federal law enacted in 1943 required that the same synthetics used for bathing suit production be reserved for the production of parachutes and other frontline necessities. So the thriftier two-piece suit was deemed patriotic.
In Europe, fortified coastlines and Allied invasions curtailed beach life, and swimsuit development came to a standstill.
In 1946, Europeans happily greeted the first war-free summer in years and French designers came up with fashions to match the liberated mood of the people. Two French designers, Jacques Heim and the aforementioned Louis Read, developed competing prototypes of the bikini.
- Heim called his the “atom” and advertised it as “the world’s smallest bathing suit.”
- Reard’s suit was significantly smaller, made of only 30 inches of fabric. Reard promoted his creation as “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit.” He called it the bikini, named after Bikini Atoll. Because his design was the first to expose the bellybutton, Reard claimed that it was sure to be as explosive as the US military tests.
Swimsuit ads boasted language related to the new weapons of mass destruction with marketers capitalizing on the public’s lurid fascination, as well as its fear, of nuclear annihilation.
The bikini was a hit, especially among men and, before long, bold young women in bikinis were causing a sensation along the Mediterranean coast.
Spain, Portugal, and Italy passed measures banning bikinis on public beaches, relenting when the swimsuit became a mainstay of European beaches in the 1950s.
In Eastern Europe, ‘Godless communists’ embraced the bikini.
In more prudish America, the suit was successfully resisted until the early 1960s when it was immortalized in the song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-dot Bikini.”
Planning a trip?
Did you know that the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site is the first site from the Marshall Islands to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List?
UNESCO sums it up this way:
The violence exerted on the natural, geophysical, and living elements by nuclear weapons illustrates the relation which can develop between man and the environment. This is reflected in the ecosystems and the terrestrial, marine and underwater landscapes of the Bikini Atoll.
This trip is only for the adventurous, but according to Stanford Magazine, the islands are safe to visit so long as outside food and water are consumed. Getting there, however, is a logistical feat. The atoll is in the Marshall Islands, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. For most outsiders, it takes several island hops, including a 27 hour boat ride. Most who make the trek are expert scuba divers keen to explore the armada of sunken warships. If you fit the bill, have fun! If not, you might want to visit PBS instead for videos from their documentary Big Pacific.
Featured Photo: Getty Images (from Allure)
Mushroom Cloud by James Vaughan (Flickr)
Bikini Atoll Today: Photo Stanford Magazine (on Medium)
“What Bikini Atoll Looks Like Today,” Stanford Magazine (on Medium), November, 20, 2017.