In Hawaii, we love bikinis. The two-piece is as ubiquitous as a pair of rubber slippers or a beach towel. Whether you’re kicking back at the Cove in Kihei, scanning for waves at Hookipa, or cooling off at Iao Valley, you’re bound to see one.
We have bikinis for just about any occasion: bikinis for tanning, for surfing, for swimming, for beauty pageants. Bikini-clad women are on pages of magazines, in advertisements, and on television commercials. Whether you’re playing beach volleyball or strutting across a stage in a beauty contest, the bikini is everywhere.
The two-piece has a long history, but the bikini got its start right after World War Two in the summer of 1946.
France was still in shambles from the Second World War, but was happy to have its first war-torn-free summer in years. Fashion designer Jacques Heim introduced a scandalous two-piece swimsuit for women that shocked the public in his day. Heim called it atome after the atom and had skywriters fly above Mediterranean resort towns announcing it as the “world’s smallest bathing suit.” (A picture of the swimsuit only shows how far we’ve come since 1946.).
Three weeks later, he was outdone by a rival designer and showman. Louis Reard took his two-piece to a nineteen-year-old stripper and had her model it around a public pool in Paris. Reard’s design was smaller. He even bragged that it was “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit.” What made this different was the exposure of the model’s belly button. No one had seen anything like that before. It even managed to shock war-weary Parisians.
Reard’s wanted the name of his creation to be just as explosive and shocking as the reaction it got from the public. He called it the bikini.
It’s too bad he went there. What Reard--and so many of us--don’t realize is that name for that risqué kind of swimwear is much darker than he imagined.
Reard named his two-piece after the Bikini Atoll, a ring of itsy, bitsy, teeny, weeny, islands surrounding a large coral reef and lagoon in the western Pacific. The water is a sparkling blue and the sands are white. Fish and crabs are in abundance.
During World War Two, the Japanese occupied Bikini as an outpost and the rest of the Marshall Islands until it was crushed by the United States in the bloody battle at Kwajalein Atoll. The five Japanese soldiers manning Bikini killed themselves in a foxhole as the American forces closed in in 1944.
Months after the war, the Americans selected Bikini Atoll as the testing ground for nuclear weapons. Bombing began in 1946, just four months before Reard’s nude dancer paraded around Paris.
In all, we detonated a total of 23 atomic bombs. We blew up the reef, blew up islands, and even blew one up in midair and let radioactive ash rain down for miles. Millions of tons of sand, coral, plant life, and sea creatures were sent sky high from the blasts. We stripped the land of its trees and after a radioactive fallout caused by the bombing, several islands were uninhabitable.
Most of the black-and-white footage of the mushroom clouds rising high in the air among the clouds comes from Bikini. The bombing finally stopped in the mid fifties.
Bikinians at first believed that they would be able to return to the atoll shortly after the tests. They were wrong. They were shipped from one camp to another in the Marshall Islands. Many starved. By the 1960s, they had settled onto an atoll that was a fraction of the size of Bikini.
An attempt to resettle their homeland failed in the 1970s when they discovered that the crabs that were part of their native diet were radioactive. There was no food left and they left again.
The late University of Hawaii anthropologist, Dr. Leonard Mason, investigated on the status of the displaced Bikinians and was horrified by their living conditions on other islands. He became their advocate. Without taking direct responsibility, the federal government has provided housing, funds, and relief to Bikinians, but it can’t replace home. Bikini Atoll remains largely uninhabited (only five or six caretakers live there). Descendants of the last generation of Bikinians still hope to return some day.
That’s what the popular two-piece swimsuit is named after. Reard explained that he named the swimsuit after the test site because exposing a woman’s navel was just as explosive as an atomic bomb. Far from it. Tell that to the Bikinians.