On July 1, 1946, at 9 o’clock in the morning, an atomic bomb exploded with a force of 23,000 tons above Bikini, a coral atoll in the South Pacific hitherto virtually unheard of. More than six disarmed warships of the Japanese and American fleets were sunk and more than twice that number were seriously damaged.
Weather conditions were ideal for the test; the sky was clear and there was no wind at all. All at once, an enormous column of smoke towered above the archipelago. At the foot of it was what seemed like a ball of fire. At first blindingly white, it then turned orange, wine-red, and finally greyish green. The cloud of smoke – some 33,000 feet (10,000 metres) high, according to onlooking aircraft pilots’ estimates – was regularly penetrated by radio-controlled planes containing live guinea-pigs and banks of highly sensitive scientific measuring apparatus.
This was the first “official” nuclear experiment since the end of World War II, in which the bombs dropped so devastatingly on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All the major newspapers made much of its effects on the paradise that had been the Southern Seas, their reports motivated, at least partially, by propaganda. The United States, the sole atomic power of the age, was demonstrating to its Soviet adversaries the terrifying extent of that power.
Incorporated into that propaganda were rumours about the bomb’s potentially destructive effect on the planet. These were rumours spread at informal levels that kept circulating due to genuine fears and concerns. Yet the world continued on as it always had, and humanity very soon felt confident enough to declare in a French newspaper that, “the Earth has not been turned to liquid, the sky not become streaked with flames, the oceans not dried up into rocky deserts.”
All the same, from a military point of view, the outcome – apart from finding out what the atomic bomb was capable of when exploded over water – was nothing less than a complete fiasco. By no means all of the target ships, painted bright yellow and orange for the occasion, had been sunk, and the primary target vessel, the battleship Nevada, had mostly escaped damage altogether. The Soviet Russian observers, admitted to the atoll by the Americans, left smirking. Grudgingly, a US admiral conceded that the bomb should only be used against maritime targets in combination with some other more detonative weapon, a torpedo, perhaps.
American hopes for the test results were thus frustrated, and accordingly, the name “Bikini” became familiar all over the world shorn of any of its potentially frightening connotations.
Only four days later, on July 5, in a public swimming pool in Paris where a beauty contest was in process, there was a minor sensation. Of only slightly scandalous value, it was nonetheless enough to make the term bikini famous forever. The promoter of the beauty contest, a certain Louis Réard, a clothing designer, used the opportunity to introduce his own latest creation.
Even before the contest judges’ final verdict, a number of spectators around the edge of the pool had been remarking on how one of the girls (who had been particularly careful to remain facing the audience, as if rapt in thought) had extraordinarily little on. When this girl was then summoned up to the podium as one of the finalists selected by the jury, a murmur of appreciation ran like lightning through the assembly. It was a reaction not to the girl’s own beauty or her personality, but to the costume she was wearing.
Like her companions, she had on a two-piece swimsuit – but hers was of such diminutive dimensions that she seemed more naked than clothed. Her breasts were modestly concealed behind two triangles of cloth held up by a halter strap tied around the neck. The base of the costume was also cut in the shape of a triangle, the widest spread of which was across the abdomen, leaving most of the hips and all of the thighs entirely bare. Only a thin strip of material connected the points of the triangle around the back, well below the level of the navel.
It was a costume that has since become a standard on our beaches today. But to those present at the Molitor Pool on that hot summer afternoon, it was the height of shamelessness and close to obscene.
Thus the bikini was born. It was the first event of a scandal that continued for twenty years. But for the little-known clothing designer specializing in bathing costumes, it was an event that represented the peak of his endeavours. Born at the very end of the nineteenth century, Louis Réard had restricted his activities to beachwear since the 1930s. His avowed ambition was to dress the celebrities of the time in his costumes, Réard costumes. He did make some contact with Maurice Chevalier, among others…
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