The bikini – women’s two-piece swimsuit with a bra top and underwear – design was coined in 1946 by French engineer Louis Réard. He named the swimsuit after Bikini Atoll, where testing on the atomic bomb was taking place. Fashion designer Jacques Heim, also from France, re-released a similar design earlier that same year, the Atome.

CUBA. Havana. 1959. Bikini model on rooftop.

More revealing than a one-piece swimsuit, the bikini was slow to be adopted, and in many countries it was banned from beaches and public places. The Vatican declared it sinful.

Micheline Bernardini modeling Réard’s bikini at the Piscine Molitor. It was small enough to fit into a 5 by 5 centimetres (2.0 by 2.0 in) box like the one she is holding. July 5, 1946.

While still considered risqué, the bikini gradually became a part of popular culture when film stars – Brigitte Bardot, Raquel Welch, Ursula Andress, and others – began wearing them on public beaches and in film.

The bikini design had become common in Western countries by the mid-1960s as beachwear, swimwear, and underwear.


Publicity photo of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello for Beach Party films (c. 1960s). Funicello was not permitted to expose her navel.

By the late 20th century it had also become common as sportswear, particularly in sports such as beach volleyball and bodybuilding.

By 1988 the bikini made up nearly 20% of swimsuit sales, though one survey indicates 85% of all bikinis never touch the water.

By the early 2000s, bikinis had become a US$811 million business annually, and boosted spin-off services such as bikini waxing and sun tanning.

Following, Magnum photographers capture the famous champions and daring early adopters of the ‘fashion atom bomb’.

Eve Arnold Marilyn Monroe. Los Angeles, California, USA. 1960
Philippe Halsman Italian actress Luigina “Gina” Lollobrigida. 1954.
Elliott Erwitt Town of St. Tropez, Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, France. 1959.
Henri Cartier-Bresson Yvelines, France. 1955.
Rene Burri Disneyland beach. 1971.
Burt Glinn Four sunbathers on leopard skin-printed rafts. Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. 1968.
David Alan Harvey Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 2000.
Thomas Dworzak Macedonian girls at the Miss Macedonia 2001 competition. Skopje, Republic of Macedonia. July 2001.