The history of the bikini can be traced back to 5600 BC, since the mother-goddess of a large ancient settlement in southern Anatolia, was depicted astride two leopards while wearing a bikini-like costume. Women wearing bikini-like garments during competitive athletic events in the Roman era have been found in the Villa Romana del Casale, a large and elaborate Roman palace, near Piazza Armenia in Sicily, built probably in the first quarter of the 4th century AD.
In the artwork, done in floor mosaic in the Chamber of the Ten Maidens and called ‘Coronation of the Winner’, the bikini girls are depicted in different athletic events and a woman in a toga, a distinctive garment of ancient Rome, with a crown in her hand and one of the maidens holding a palm frond.
However, as swimming or outdoor bathing were discouraged in the Christian West, there was little need for a bathing or swimming costume till the 18th century. Even, in the 1900s, wool dresses were used by the women on the beach, which were made of up to 9 yards (8.2 m) of fabric. In 1907, Australian swimmer and performer, Annette Kellerman, who became famous as the ‘Diving Venus’ and the ‘Australian Mermaid’, was arrested on a Boston beach, accused of indecency because she wore her one-piece costume.
Later in her life, she became an exponent of free body culture and fitness. She was the first significant actress who showed up completely naked in a movie named ‘A Daughter of the Gods’, only covering her private parts with her long hair.
When female swimming was introduced at the Summer Olympics in 1912, women were allowed to swim in the Kellerman-type one-piece swimsuits. Inspired by that breakthrough, designer Carl Janzten introduced a two-piece bathing costume in 1913, to enhance the performance of the swimmers, which was just a shorts on the bottom and short sleeves T-shirt on the top, but was tight-fitting enough to cause a bit of a scandal. However, with the advent of the 1930s, necklines plunged at the back, sleeves disappeared and sides were cut away and tightened. Apart from that, due to appearance of the new clothing materials lie, nylon, swimsuits gradually began hugging the body, with shoulder straps that could be lowered for tanning.
However, the story of the actual bikini seems to be entwined with the beginning of the atomic age. In May1946, French fashion designer Jacques Heim, owner of a beach shop in the French Riviera resort town of Cannes, introduced a minimalist two-piece design and named it the ‘Atome’, after the smallest known particle of any matter. The bottom part of his new design was just large enough to cover the wearer's navel. During the same time, a French automobile and mechanical engineer, named Louis Réard, who was running his mother's lingerie business near Les Folies Bergeres in Paris, noticed that women on beaches roll up the edges of their swimsuits to get a better tan. It inspired him to trim additional fabric off the bottom of the swimsuit, exposing the wearer's belly button for the first time. However, the scandal began even before the introduction, as no fashion models agreed to wear the bikini, which includes two parts. Ultimately, Réard had to hire the 19 year old strippers, Micheline Bernardini from Casino de Paris, for the premier and introduced his design to the media and public on 5 July 1946, at the Piscine Molitor, a public pool in Paris, which is still considered as the official date of birth of bikini. The newly designed shocked the press and public, as it was the first to reveal the wearer's navel.
In no time, the bold and beautiful young women in bikinis caused a sensation along the Mediterranean coast. However, it was immediately forbidden in most of the states of the USA and some of the conservative European countries, such as Portugal, Spain and Italy also prohibited bikinis on public beaches in 1947.Even the Pope declared it as sinful devilish clothing. Later, bikini was also banned from worldwide beauty pageants after the first Miss World Contests in London in 1951.Nevertheless, Réard did not give up. He initiated a bold ad campaign, which propagated that a two-piece swimsuit was not a genuine bikini, unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring and despite the strong social protests and resistance, Réard received more than 50,000 letters from fans. It was remarked by a reputed fashion historian that, Réard was ahead of his time by about 15 to 20 years.
In spite of the growing popularity, Bikini needed at least another 16 years to be accepted universally. Brigitte Bardot made a splash, when she appeared in a bikini for the first time on screen in 1956, in Roger Vadim’s iconic film ‘And God Created Woman’. Apart from that, though reputed Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Esther Williams follow suit in the United States, the Modern Girl magazine commented, it is inconceivable that any girl with intelligence and sense of decency would ever wear such a thing. But, when the Swiss actress Ursula Andress came out convincingly from the sea in a belted white bikini in Dr No, a James Bond film from 1962, every woman started to dream about having her own bikini.
Scandals turned out to be helpful for the business, since in that rebellious time no one wanted to seem old fashioned. The year 1974 paved the way for the onset of the high-cut bikini and G-string, which was introduced into American fashion. Gradually, the small suit grew smaller than ever, as G-strings made their way north from Brazil. Réard's company finally closes, but the bikini's popularity continues to soar, accounting for more than 20 percent of swimsuit sales in the United States and by the end of the 20th century, women from all around the world spent around 800 million dollars on bikinis.
The bikini became the women’s beach volleyball team’s official uniform at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. At the Beach Volleyball World Championships in 1997, the U.S. professional-volleyball player and model Gabrielle Reece promoted her sport in bikinis, proving the style as fashionable and practical.