Jacques Heim Jacques Heim's bikini 1940 Louis Réard
Everybody heard about the vicissitudes that surrounded the creation of the 1rst Bikini in July 1946, the fratricidal war engaged between Jacques Heim and Louis Réard, the scandal rousing from the presentation of the famous swimming dress in Molitor Swimming Pool, the anathema and proscriptions which were pronounced at the time of its less than easy start on the beaches …so … well if everything is nearly true…nothing is accurate!
In order to clear up this bunch of approximations and untruths, let’s start to become acquainted with the two protagonists of the story: Jacques Heim and Louis Réard.
Jacques Heim was born in 1899 in a furrier family, and this oriented his carrier of creator to be furrier stylist for the big fashion names such as Paul Poiret, Coco Chanel or Lanvin. His tiny fur shop located rue Lafitte in Paris soon became a fashion house. In 1937 Jacques Heim moves to N° 15 Avenue Matignon, an address fitting his new “Haute Couture” status. Couturier star in the years 40/50, he becomes official supplier of two “first ladies”: Madame de Gaulle in France and Madame Eisenhower in the United States. His carrier climaxes as Head of the Trade Union of the “Haute Couture Française “from 1958 to 1962.
By keeping a shop in Cannes and one in Biarritz, Jacques Heim is also interested in seaside resorts fashion and creates two piece- swimming suits which become very fashionable during the years 1940. During the spring 1946, he creates a mini two piece- swimming dress he will name “Atome” in reference to the smallest element known at that time. The advertising catch phrase is: “The smallest swimming dress in the world “… here is the beginning of our story…
About Louis Réard, we hardly know anything. He was born in 1897 and it is said he was an automotive engineer with Renault or Peugeot? Despite his profession, he was handling his mother’s shop in Paris, close to Folies Bergères …or in Lille??? This does not make sense. No information, no photos, no interview and lot of confusion.
However we finally see his markers of creator (designer) in 1946, at a time when he is nearly 50. Louis Réard is advertiser and sponsor of the “Finale of the prettiest female bather contest“; the winner receiving the trophy “la coupe Réard”. Tickets are sold 100 and 200 Francs and can be purchased either directly at the Molitor Swimming Pool where the contest will take place, or at the “ Cinémonde “ newspaper offices covering the event , or at Réard , 47 rue de Clichy in Paris. This contest takes place during the famous “ la Fête de l’Eau “ which has been an institution since 1929, date of opening of the famous Molitor Swimming Pool.
But, before focusing on the day of July 5th 1946, official birth date of the famous swimming dress, let’s see what happened during that day of July 1st. Less than one year after the terrible nuclear bombs have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulting in more than 250 000 victims and contributing to the end of the war, the USA conducted another Atomic Bomb test by dropping“Able” in the frame of a Programme of Research and Development. The explosion takes place in the Marshall Islands, South Pacific, and more exactly on the Bikini atoll. On July 1st in the morning, the front page of all newspapers of the world reports this news, and during the next days, the explosion of this new bomb and the name “Bikini” will remain graved in all minds and be on everybody’s lips.
There comes Louis Réard’s 1st brilliant idea: to appropriate the name of this small atoll. His mini swimming dress is still unnamed; competitor Jacques Heim has given the name “Atome” to his , so it will be “ Bikini”. Without knowing it, thanks to this simple idea, Louis Réard enters the fashion history.
On July 5th 1946, in the Molitor Swimming Pool at 3.30 pm, the water festival begins and the fashion show of young girls in swimming dress is on full swing.
The three members of the jury –who at that time are not yet called “people” – do their best to give the casting vote while making the show for the many photographers and some cameramen for the emerging cinematographic news programmes. We have there Andrex, a famous popular songs singer and two actresses, Madeleine Sologne , platinum blond known at that time for her performance in the cult movie “ l’éternel retour” co-starring with Jean Marais , and Paulette Dubost, the unforgettable Lisette , the maid in Jean Renoir Masterpiece “ La règle du jeu “.
Besides those shows and numerous entertainments, a charming young lady suddenly makes her appearance at the edge of the swimming pool: she is one of the Casino de Paris nude dancers, and she wears a tiny two-piece bathing costume.
If the bra is small, it is nevertheless within the normal range of the time, BUT for the bottom part, this is a revolution! Whereas until that time, all the 2 piece costumes had high breeches covering the navel, this one uncovers nearly everything. A small triangle for the front piece and an even smaller one for the back piece, and to tie them up a string tighten on the entirely naked hips. The mannequin holds in her hands a 5cm big square box, for packaging the sulpherous “bikini” . To end up with the description, the fabric is made of “ Newspaper print “, a patchwork of newspaper cuttings, a concept invented in 1935 by Elsa Schiaparelli which will still be a hit in the collections of John Galliano during the years 2000.
There is of course a question , when seeing the model’s naked buttocks : in addition to the bikini, didn’t Louis Réard invent also the string?
In order to continue clearing up the story, one has to look closely at the two cinematographic sources available for this event: the archives from both INA and Gaumont Pathé. When Micheline Bernardini is presenting the new bathing suit by Louis Réard, the photographers and cameramen rush …towards the opposite end of the swimming pool, where the jury remits the awards.
In fact, the bikini is unveiled amid shear indifference, except for a bunch of photographers, in search of spicy pictures, surrounding the nearly naked woman. On the following day, the same indifference is shown in the press, nobody mentions the bikini unveiling, some few refer to the competition for the most beautiful bathing girl, but not a single word about Louis Réard. One exception for “France- Soir” magazine, with a small picture in inner pages mentioning “the most original piece was the so called “Bikini” , however his charm doesn’t lie in his name… “In the magazines and fashion reviews, same thing , the event is totally ignored; Louis Réard, already “persona non grata” in the small fashion world is definitely “ blacklisted” by this very closed circle which finds the small shopkeeper decidedly too vulgar. The famous bikini will enter back in its tiny box and nobody will ever see again, even in Réard shop, such a small bathing suit…
One must be realistic : the bikini unveiling was a failure and none of the slogans such as “smaller than the smallest bathing suit in the world “ (more fitting playgrounds) or “ provider for the greatest stars in the world “, will make a change.
July the 5th will be the only day of appearance for the mini two piece swimming-suit by Réard. The famous bikini will be put back in its tiny box forever. Louis Réard himself will never dare to design such a tiny bikini another time.
However, time will do its job for the bikini to become popular…
Louis Réard, confident in his talent, will have a brilliant idea for the 2nd time. Convinced that women have only one idea which is to be the most undressed possible on the beach, he finds a way to come to them and offer them his seaside collections. To this aim, he will invest in event-driven marketing.
He invests a lot in the creation by car bodyshopper Chapron of a car-boat , half cabriolet half Chris –Craft which will render him very visible. Henri Chapron, who designed a presidential DS for General de Gaulle and a Citroën SM Cabriolet for President Georges Pompidou, will invent for him an hybrid vehicle on the basis of the model “ Packard Super Eight “ dating from 1938.
From the summer 1948 on, Louis Réard, dressed as a yachtman , will go beach after beach with this fabulous “boat” always accompanied at the rear seat by a pin up in a wonderful Réard gold fabric bikini. This vehicle will receive the 1st price all categories from the French Advertising Federation.
This time, success has been achieved and business is going well; a shop opens in a prestigious district , number 9 Avenue de l’Opéra in Paris and the brand is distributed in Los Angeles , 1041 Bronxton Avenue, which enables him to name his brand “ Réard of California”…
Nevertheless, in the beginning of the 5Oth, the word « bikini » is not yet part of the common language. It is still ignored by the media till another bomb explodes on the Carlton beach in Cannes during the Film Festival and, at last, opens the way for bikini to become a common name.
Brigitte Bardot, who is there with her husband Roger Vadim, agrees to a classic photo session as a “starlet”. She wears a white bikini with flowers and is shot by many photographers; although this piece is not from Réard, the Bikini is definitely launched!
This international renown should have benefitted the creator, but nothing is less true. Louis Réard tries to prevent the use of the term “bikini” in the few fashion medias mentioning it, as well as its commercial use..to no avail. The history is going forward, Louis Réard cannot go against the tide; his invention escaped from him. The bikini enters in the dictionary, but, even more, the bikini has been adopted by everybody.
After having sold his company by the end of the 70’s, Louis Réard retires in Switzerland with his wife. During all his life he dreamed of belonging to the Gotha and be in contact with celebrities. But he will have to wait until his death in 1984 and his last stay in the cemetery of Bois de Vaux in Lausanne for his dream to become true. Buried not far from celebrities such as Pierre de Coubertin or Eugène Viollet- le –Duc, he would have appreciated knowing he would also be neighbor with Gabrielle Chanel, the irony of destiny unifying forever the small black dress and his bikini to the acme of fashion.
Texte : © Patrice Gaulupeau / Nuits de Satin – Traduction Marie-Claude Génossar
Annex: l’Officiel de la Mode N° 624 1976
In our publication N° 622, we employed wrongly the term Bikini to address an article from Givenchy. The Réard shop, 9 avenue de l ’Opera , specializing in 1 or 2 piece swim-suits reminds us it is absolutely forbidden to use the name “ Bikini” or its derivatives related to whatever article which it did not produce. (..) Louis Réard is therefore the sole and only owner of this registered brand, no licence having be granted to anyone.
Les nuits de satins