Bikini: La Bombe Anatomique

If people know about the American nuclear weapons that were exploded in the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, they tend to think the swimsuit of the same name is just a strange coincidence. There is no apparent connection, but actually it was more intentional and profound than one would at first think.
In July 1946, Louis Réard was told that his upcoming swimsuit design was something the world was not ready for, so, feeling he needed to make a big splash, he grabbed a name out of the recent headlines and called his two-piece creation the bikini. The swimsuit debuted on July 5, 1946 at the pool in the Hotel Molidor, Paris, just five days after the first of many nuclear explosions in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands.
In fact, the arrival of the bikini had the effect of a bomb in the fashion world. The reaction was so extreme that Réard even had trouble finding a model willing to wear it for the debut. At last, a nude dancer named Micheline Bernardini rose to the occasion and claimed her fame as the first woman to wear a bikini. Commentators stretched their imagination to relate it to all things atomic, saying for example that it was a “weapon of mass seduction” on the beaches and fashion runways of the world. By the early 1960s, the sexual revolution had arrived and everything changed. At the end of the decade it was standard beachwear in Europe and the Americas. 

In his book Hungary to Hollywood Express, Eric Plamondon describes the public reaction in 1946:

The press was in a frenzy about the first bombe anatomique, as it was called in publicity. In baptizing his creation with the name of the atoll where the most destructive weapon in history had been used, he said he was creating a “weapon of mass peace,” thinking that when we can see women strolling in bikinis, men will forget about making war. The day after the show at the Molitor pool, certain acerbic Parisian critics said that it was called the bikini because it would be the only thing left on the body after a nuclear explosion.[1]
Micheline Bernardini & Louis Réard
It would be easy to say that Louis Réard was trivializing the horror of what was happening on the Bikini Atoll and just hopping on a popular marketing trend of the day, one that saw the word atomic overused with callous disregard for the victims in Japan and in the Marshall Islands. It appeared he was being disingenuous in saying that a more peaceful world would come from a fashion that seemed to be deliberately designed to incite lust. It’s a given in biology that the sexual instinct is what drives male competition, and the historical record of powerful alpha males acquiring harems and mistresses attests to this fact. Evolutionary psychology claims that female desires are a part of the problem, too, inasmuch as women encourage male competition and show a preference for high-status men.
I have no way of knowing what Réard was really thinking, but I would like to think that he was being more sincere and serious than dimwitted fashion critics gave him credit for. Philosophers of the time were pronouncing that mankind had to change, that the bomb had changed everything, that civilization would not survive another war. But how were we to extinguish this aggressive tendency toward war? No one had an answer, but here was an apparently frivolous designer of flimsy swimwear pointing the way. If the selfish gene, the sexual instinct, was the root of all war, then he was right. We would have to get used to women strolling past half-naked, get over the male gaze, and think more deeply about what the bikini says about exposure and vulnerability in the atomic age. The bikini really is a work of art with strings connecting it to the Bikini Atoll.
The bikini was said to be a figurative bombe anatomique, while the atom bomb was too--radiation literally targeted the human anatomy at the molecular level, so this term coined by Réard was apt in ways he may not have understood himself. Radiation is an assault on the body. Hindsight tells us that the men who brought the bomb into existence were frighteningly reckless about the monster they were unleashing on the world. Scientists knew at the time that radiation posed serious dangers that were very difficult to control, but it wasn’t until the next decade that DNA was understood and the mechanism of genetic damage became clearer. The nuclear industry is still in denial about how bad the problem is, but I think Louis Réard had an intuitive understanding of the problem at the dawn of the nuclear age.

Later research revealed that women, children and especially fetuses are more sensitive than men to the effects of radiation[2], so Réard was very prescient when he asked us to look at what his creation revealed. A high-cut bikini accentuates the lower abdomen, while a low-cut one, unlike any article of clothing before it, reveals it for all to see. And what is there to contemplate? Therein lies the crucible of life, yet despite all the other flesh on display, people in 1946 were most scandalized by the sight of the navel. The lower abdomen revealed by a bikini is the vessel of three generations—the mother, the daughter, and the ova inside that daughter. And this is what was now exposed—to the radiation from global fallout and to the eyes of the civilization that had made the bombs. I'll give Louis Réard the benefit of doubt and say this is why he believed the bikini should put an end to war.

A screen shot from my computer, 69 years after the arrival of the bikini:
Smart investors wanted for thorium ponzy schemes. Necessary nukes.
Question more indeed.

[1] Éric Plamondon, Hongrie-Hollywood Express (Le quartanier, 2011), p. 81. Cited in http://dagi.pagesperso-orange.fr/page-labombe-5.html

[2] For information on the higher vulnerability to radiation in women, children and fetuses, listen to these two episodes of Libby HaLevy’s podcast Nuclear Hotseat:

Episode 165: Interview with Dr. Ian Fairlie on leukemia rates of children living near nuclear plants.
Episode 191: Atomic Eggs: Increased female vulnerability to radiation.

1 comment:

  1. thx for info... keep writing and giving us an information... glhf for ur day!!!