Thu, Jun 15, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Smaller than the smallest swimsuit

The bikini is 60 next month. Where better to find out what the latest styles are than St. Tropez, its spiritual home

By Paula Cocozza  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

''Overall, the bikini has absolutely shrunk in size: it's lower on the back, lower in the front and skimpier on the sides,'' said Maria Barnes, the US sales manager for Roxy, the surf-inspired swimwear company.

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When Brigitte Bardot cavorted on the sand in a gingham bikini in St Tropez in 1955, while her husband Roger Vadim trained his camera on her for the film And God Created Woman, she established not only the popularity of the two-piece but the reputation of St. Tropez as the beachwear capital of the western world. More than 50 years have passed since then, but swimwear industry trendspotters still trek to the sandy bays of Le Pampelonne, 5km southeast of the town, and copy artists continue to plunder St. Tropez's prestige boutiques for ideas.

Other swimwear centers may have grown -- Miami, for one -- but as France gears up to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bikini next month, St. Tropez remains very much its spiritual home.

A tall screen of whispering bamboo envelops Club 55, the beach club created in the year of its name to provide refreshments to Vadim's cast and crew. In the car park, BMWs and Porsches stretch out their sinewy curves in shades from bronze through gunmetal to black, their steely surfaces turning into mirrors in the sun. The season will not hit full swing until next month, but while lines of sunloungers recede along the sand largely uninhabited, the restaurant is already filling up -- and there is a dress code. A woman in her 60s has unlocked the buttons of her white shirt to show a treasure chest full of heavy silver chains rattling over a turquoise and pink bikini top.

"You don't go to the beach to relax -- you go to eat, to drink, to meet people," says Sanja Jandric, who for two years worked at Club 55, and is now a sales assistant at Zoe, a swimwear boutique in the centre of St. Tropez.

"The people who come here come to look. They know each other from one year to another. It's very important to look good because they will say otherwise, `What's happened to her this year?' This is the place to show what you have, who you are. Your bikini -- well, it goes together with your Porsche."

It was not always this way. The bikini began life 885km away, in Paris, and was initially reviled. Louis Reard was a car engineer by training, but by 1946 he was running his mother's lingerie shop.

This was clearly a time of experimentation in the world of swimwear design, because not so far from Madame Reard's shop the designer Jacques Heim was working on a prototype for a new kind of beach costume. It comprised two pieces but, crucially, the bottom, was sufficiently generous to cover its wearer's bellybutton.

Heim's deference to prudence, however, was to be his downfall. Scarcely had he christened it "the world's smallest bathing suit" than Reard was slicing the top off the bottoms and offering up his new elaboration as "smaller than the smallest swimsuit." When the US army conducted its atomic bomb tests on the Bikini atoll in the Pacific on July 1, 1946, out of the mushroom of the explosion Reard plucked a name for his creation that would stand the test of time.

Four days later, his "bikini" was modelled by Micheline Bernardini. The only woman willing whom Reard could find; ordinarily she made her living by dancing while wearing even less. Italy and Spain issued immediate bans. Early sales were not encouraging. But then, of course, came Bardot, whose "mobile contours" (as a reviewer for the New York Times put it) would finally sell the bikini to the US.

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