The Skinny On Bikinis

A group of spring breakers from Alberta, Canada, soak up the sun in Cancun, Mexico, Tuesday, March 14, 2006. The sugar-white sand beaches are back after being swept away by Hurricane Wilma five months ago. But there are no stages for wet T-shirt contests, and MTV won't be hosting its spring break beach party. Instead, the first wave of winter-weary college students who converged on Cancun found that construction workers nearly outnumbered revelers this week in Mexico's spring break capital of beer and bikinis. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
AP Photo/Gregory Bull
To many, the appearance of the bikini is the first real sign of summer — a return to the simple pleasures of the beach, like warm sand and blue skies.

And while it's a perfect complement to these gifts of nature, the bikini is most definitely a creation of man — two men, to be precise.

The year was 1946, the place was France. Rival designers Louis Reard and Jacques Heim were competing to produce the world's smallest swimsuit. Their race ended with a bang of inspiration.

Although Heim's suit was first to hit the beach, it was Louis Reard (an automobile engineer)who gave the bikini its memorable name, thanks to an American A-bomb test in the Pacific's Bikini Atoll. And like the atomic bomb, Reard's bikini was a tour-de-force in manipulating tiny bits of matter.

But for its debut in Paris, the designer had one big problem: no one would model it.

"He couldn't get models," Kelly Killoren Bensimon, author of "The Bikini Book," told CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Serena Altshul. "But he did enlist a stripper to wear the bikini and she wore it. And the picture is so cute."

"Little did she know that she was going set the stage for the rest of the world."

As a model herself, Bensimon is no stranger to the subject.

"The difference between a two-piece and the bikini is that the bikini exposes the navel, which is the 'zone of contention' — 'No, no, don't look there' — and that's why it became really provocative."

In the years that followed, films like "And God Created Woman" with Brigitte Bardot (another popular French export) helped promote the bikini.

It seemed nobody could do more with less, as the trailer for "The Girl In the Bikini" promised: "Brigitte Bardot as an uninhibited child of nature, stripped of all pretense! A lighthouse keeper's daughter who believes in dressing light!"

Here in the U.S., it took two decades of pinup girls, surfer girls, Bond girls, and even cavegirls to make the bikini acceptable, if not entirely respectable.

"The bikini's associated with scandal and that's why it's survived," Bensimon said. "The bikini is about freedom, it's about fun. It's a lifestyle. The bikini is for the bad girl — it's not for Barbie."

Designer Malia Mills' swimwear company is founded on the notion that there's a bikini for every body.

"The design is really the easy part," Mills told Altshul "It's the fitting that takes so much time — you have to be so precise. We fit each bottom to fit a very specific shape. So if you're nice and round, there's a tiny tie side for you. And if you're taller and slender, there's also a skimpy bottom for you as well, because they're cut very differently to fit you beautifully."

"Every little eighth-of-an-inch is a difference between a beautiful fit and one that's just slightly off," she said.

And nowhere does the bikini have a more perfect fit than in women's beach volleyball — the only Olympic sport where it's the official uniform.

"The sexy body is one that looks like it can do something," said Bensimon. "And when you see women, athletic women, or just women that are, you know, in a bikini, you really see their body. You really see that they can do something with it."

But not all the action on the beach is quite so physical. Magazines like FHM keep the cameras clicking year-round — which keeps the magazines flying off the stands.

It all begs the question: How low can it go? And is smaller better?

"I think it is," Bensimon said. "You know, it's like when you wear tight jeans, you look better. When you wear baggy jeans, you look like you're hiding something. When you wear a smaller bikini, it just looks better."

So for the rest of the weekend, go on, stare! And while the movie may say God created woman, it's clear, only man could have created the bikini.