Sixty years ago in Cannes, an itsy-bitsy swimsuit made a big splash

It was the suit heard around the world. When the bikini debuted in the summer of 1946 in Cannes, even the most laissez-faire of spectators was shocked to see le nombril — a.k.a., the navel — make its first public appearance. “It was considered the zone of contention and defined the difference between a two-piece bathing suit and a bikini,” says Kelly Killoren Bensimon, author of “The Bikini Book,” an illustrated 400-page tribute to the itsy bitsy icon of fashion just out from Assouline.

Even more contentious was the debate over who invented it: French fashion couturier Jacques Heim or automobile engineer Louis Reard, who went on to patent the design. No self-respecting model would don the creation at the time, so a Parisian stripper was the first to pose in the mere 27 inches of cloth.

The outcry was heard from the Vatican to Vogue. The church quickly denounced the bikini; Spain, Portugal and Italy all banned the suit from beaches. Ironically, Vogue adopted the stance of a prim, old Auntie: “Our readers dislike the bikini, which has transformed certain costumes into the backstage of music halls and which does not embellish women,” the magazine wrote in 1951.

Enter Hollywood, which sniffed sweet opportunity in the acrid redolence of controversy. Stars like Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner smartly shimmied into bikinis for publicity shots. Jayne Mansfield was rarely spotted wearing anything but a skimpy suit that cantilevered her 41-inch bosom. However, Esther Williams kept her belly button to herself. “A bikini is a thoughtless act,” said Williams, who now designs a line of modest bikinis.

But more than anyone, it was Brigitte Bardot who embodied the bikini poster girl in a string of movies that included “And God Created Woman” and “The Night Heaven Fell.” Never mind the fact that her heart-shaped face had more curves than her boyish frame. Ever insouciant, she wore a bikini as naturally as a cat wears fur. In the states, Racquel Welch — a cello come to life — grabbed the mantle in the late ’60s. Her prehistoric bikini in “One Million Years B.C.” created a Brontosaurus-size stir.

The Bond girls didn’t disappoint — there was that unforgettable image of Ursula Andress emerging from the surf in a white bikini with a knife holster in 1962’s “Dr. No.” When Halle Berry became a Bond babe four decades later in “Die Another Day,” her bathing suit, modeled after Andress’ look, again made a major splash.

Sadly, few movie stars wear bikinis in films these days. Cameron Diaz occasionally jiggles her way across the big screen, and Demi Moore donned a string bikini for her acting comeback in “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.” It was a genius move: The fact that she looked as taut as a teenager at 40 made global headlines. But, says author Bensimon, “female actors think that they won’t be taken seriously if they wear a bikini.”

Will the 60-year-old suit ever make a comeback in Hollywood? Fashion designers seem to be getting their inspiration from those juicy, post-war images of starlets wearing swimsuits. The styles of this season by designers like Michael Kors, Pucci and Juicy Couture all have a decidedly retro feel. “I love the idea of a more demure sexiness coming to swimwear,” says Kors. “My Spring collection was based on a modern take of Elizabeth Taylor in ‘Giant,’ and it can definitely be worn by Jessica, Lindsay and Halle.”

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