Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands
From New Zealand we take a four-thousand-mile trip practically due north, deep into the heart of the open Pacific Ocean. Our destination is a remote chain of twenty-three low-lying sandy islands surrounding a two-hundred-square-mile lagoon, in the far north of the Marshall Islands group. The atoll in question lies just north of the equator and just west of the International Date Line – so the local time here is a full twelve hours ahead of GMT.
The word under consideration isn’t some obscure or little-known curio that matches the remoteness of the place. Far from it: the Marshall Islands’ isolated Bikini Atoll is the etymological origin of the bikini swimsuit.
What connects the one to the other? Well, the answer to that lies with two French fashion designers and a US military project carried out at the atoll in 1946.
Where is Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands? – Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands Map – Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands Map Download Free Photo Gallery
And Rita Hayworth.
On 1 July 1946, the US military dropped an atomic bomb nicknamed ‘Gilda’ (after Rita Hayworth’s character in the film Gilda, which had opened the previous February) on a fleet of ghost ships assembled as a target in the Bikini Atoll lagoon. The explosion – part of a series of nuclear tests in the area known as Operation Crossroads -marked the first major nuclear missile explosion since the bombing of
Nagasaki the previous August, and was the first such test attended by an invited audience of military dignitaries, politicians and the press. The test was not quite the success the military had hoped for: the bomb landed a little off target, and damage to the ships was not as total as had been expected. Nevertheless, the event was a spectacle unlike anything that had ever been seen before – and was soon being reported as such by the press, all around the world.
Eight thousand miles away in France, news of the US atomic bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean happened to coincide with the introduction of a new style of two-piece swimsuit, designed by Parisian fashion designer Jacques Heim. Skimpier than any similar swimsuit ever seen before, Heim named his design the atome – not only a buzzword of the nuclear age, but as the name of the smallest known unit of matter, a punning reference to the scantiness of Heim’s swimsuit. Heim began selling his swimsuit in June 1946, several weeks before the first Marshall Islands test was carried out. Undoubtedly, it would have been his design – and, indeed, his name for it – that would have endured in the language, were it not for the work of fellow Parisian fashion designer Louis Reard.
Reard too had designed a similar two-piece swimsuit, and introduced his design at a fashion show four days after the first Bikini Atoll test had broken in the press. Perhaps partly inspired by Heim’s atome, Reard named his design the bikini after the site of the recent nuclear test that was now known the world over. The design was even skimpier than Heim’s – so much so, in fact, that Reard had to hire a nude dancer from a Paris casino to model it for the press. Made from a scant 30 inches of fabric, Reard marketed his design as ‘smaller than the world’s smallest swimsuit’; unlike Heim’s atome, the bikini scandalously left the wearer’s navel exposed.
Competition between the two designers and their swimsuits was soon afoot, but thanks to a mixture of good timing, better publicity and a growing appetite for more risqué designs in an increasingly liberated post-war Europe, it was Réard’s bikini that eventually caught on. Despite initial controversy, his design has remained popular ever since – and has given the isolated Marshall Islands archipelago a surprisingly well-known place in our language.
A second test three weeks later, on 25 July, proved more destructive but still did not go entirely as expected. A bomb, nicknamed Helen of Bikini, was detonated underwater, throwing a vaporising column of contaminated sea spray high into the air, scattering radiation across the surrounding islands. Bikini was instantly rendered uninhabitable -despite the fact that the 167 Marshallese people who had lived there before being evacuated by the US military had been told they would be able to return after the tests were complete. Even after a lengthy cleanup operation, radiation levels at Bikini remain relatively high to this day; Glenn T. Seaborg (namesake of the element seaborgium, which we met earlier in the my blog) understandably called this second explosion at Bikini ‘the world’s first nuclear disaster’.
Today, the island has a permanent population of roughly half a dozen caretakers, who monitor radiation levels in the area. Conditions have improved in recent decades and Bikini has become a popular destination for scuba divers, who are drawn to explore the number of vessels sunk at the bottom of the lagoon.