Jacques versus Louis

By Brad Dison

For centuries, Paris has been the mecca for clothing designers.  Jacques Heim was a French costume designer for theater and film.  In the 1920s, he began working in his parents’ fur company.  Although fur clothing is frowned upon today, it was popular during Jacques’s lifetime.  In 1923, he took over the family business and expanded its product line to include dresses, non-fur coats, and other articles of clothing.  In 1932, Jacques created a new piece of clothing altogether and needed a catchy name for it.  At the time of his creation, scientists were making discoveries which they said would usher in a new era of human existence.  They claimed that one day soon, nuclear energy would transform the world into a utopian society.  They called it the “Atomic Age.”  Jacques liked the idea of the atomic age, and he named his creation the Atome.  For years, Jacques tried to get people interested in the Atome.  He even hired skywriters, pilots who flew small aircraft which released special smoke during flight to create writing that was readable from the ground, to tell people about his product.  Despite his best efforts, few people wore the Atome, and it was ultimately deemed a commercial failure. 

Another designer named Louis Réard created a similar product based on a redesign of Jacques’s Atome.  Like Jacques, Louis began an advertising campaign for his creation.  As part of that campaign, Louis wanted a model to wear his creation at its unveiling presentation.  All the models he usually hired for such events refused to wear his creation.  Louis knew that without a model to showcase his product, his creation would be a failure just as Jacques’s Atome had been.  In desperation, he hired 19-year-old Micheline Bernardini to model his creation at its unveiling.  Micheline had no experience in runway modeling.  She worked at the Casino de Paris as a fully nude exotic dancer.     

On July 1, 1946, the United States exploded the first of 23 nuclear bombs in what was called Operation Crossroads.  Like Jacques, Louis was inspired by the atomic age and named his product after the location of the nuclear explosion.  Four days later, Micheline unveiled Louis’s creation in Paris.  For Louis, the success or failure of the product depended on its unveiling.  He invited local and international press to the unveiling.  As an extra step to endear his product to newspapermen, Louis used cloth with a newspaper type pattern.  To Louis’s relief, newspapers around the world published articles with pictures of Micheline wearing Louis’s creation.  Louis’s creation was an instant hit, as was Micheline.  She received more than 50,000 fan letters after the event.  14 days after the unveiling, Louis applied for and received a patent for his design.  For the next 40 years, Louis operated a shop in Paris as a home base from where he sold his design all over the world.    

Louis named his creation after the atoll where the United States tested nuclear bombs.  That name has become part of our popular culture.  You and I know Louis’s creation, which consisted of no more than 30 square inches of material, as the Bikini.   

Source:  Adwar, Corey, “The Scandalous Story behind the Debut of the Bikini.” Business Insider. Accessed July 9, 2023. https://www.businessinsider.com/the-scandalous-story-of-the-bikinis-debut-2014-7.

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