Photographed by Christina Higgins

To holiday in Ireland prior to 1960 was to head off camping or to Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Co. Meath. Air travel was considered a rare luxury, a thrilling and exotic escape from everyday life. To work as an air hostess at Aer Lingus was to be glamorous and worldly – girls were chosen based on their ability to be “distinctive, charming, poised, tactful… beautiful and educated.” As Irish author Terry Prone recalled: “When someone we knew was accepted, it was like they'd been assumed into heaven. From then on, they would be jetting around the world, living in hotels and tanning themselves on resort beaches until they fell in love with an Aer Lingus pilot.”

For normal folk in Ireland and across Europe, to fly meant you had arrived, you were part of the jet set. This was the Golden Age of Flying, and with enough money, you could chase rays in the Mediterranean while sipping on a pina colada– think Catch me if you Can minus the fraud.  

Below, I chart the origin of the ‘sun tan’, and the ‘bikini.’ You try imagining a sun holiday without either – I mean I can (see above), but I bet the majority couldn't. 


Coco Chanel sporting a sun tan on the beach alongside Duke Laurino of Rome, 1930

Coco Chanel sporting a sun tan on the beach alongside Duke Laurino of Rome, 1930

Coco Chanel liberated women in more ways than one – as well as introducing deluxe casual clothes for leisure and sport and freeing them from the oppressive corset, she accidentally invented the ‘sun tan.’ Dark skin had previously been associated with the lower classes (who worked outdoors and were regularly exposed to the sun) – society ladies would apply lead based products to their skin to look even whiter. In the late 19th and 20th century, research indicated the health benefits of sun light – in 1903, Niels Finsen won a Nobel prize for his his “Finsen Light Therapy” using artificial sunlight, and Dr Auguste Rollier opened the first “sun clinic” in the Swiss Alps. However, darker skin became instantly covetable when Chanel stepped off a cruise ship in Cannes after burning her skin on the French Riviera in 1923. Suddenly women everywhere were throwing away their precious parasols and bonnets and embracing the sun’s rays. It became a sign of wealth and beauty along with the summer holiday – a nod to a jet-setting, frivolous life of luxury and leisure, a trend that has had lasting effects.  As her friend Prince Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucigne later said: "I think she may have invented sunbathing. At that time, she invented everything." 


Nude dancer Micheline Bernardini wearing Louis Reard's 'Bikini' at a press conference, 1946

Nude dancer Micheline Bernardini wearing Louis Reard's 'Bikini' at a press conference, 1946

The bikini was invented by two French men, in opposing resorts, at the exact same time. French fashion designer Jacques Heim, who owned a beach shop on the French Riviera in Cannes, introduced his ‘Atome’ minimalist two-piece swim suit in May 1946 (named after the smallest know particle of matter) – the bottom half of his design was just large enough to cover the wearer’s navel. To promote this controversial new invention, Heim hired skywriters to fly above the resort advertising ‘Atome’ as “the world’s smallest bathing suit.”

Louis Reard, an automotive and mechanical engineer who ran his mother’s lingerie business in Paris, noticed women on the beaches of St.Tropez rolling up the edges of their swimsuits to get a tan (a la Coco Chanel). He was inspired to trim additional fabric off the bottom of the swimsuit, exposing the women’s navel for the first time.  His string bikini consisted of four triangles made from 30 square inches of fabric printed with a newspaper pattern. Unable to convince his usual models to wear his new design, Reard hired 19-year-old nude dancer Micheline Bernardini from the Casino de Paris and on July 5th 1946, he shocked the press and the public at a conference in Paris at Piscine Molitor, a public pool in Paris, with his cutting-edge two-piece.

Heim’s design was the first to hit the beach, but Reard’s name stuck with the public –  he borrowed it from the Bikini Atoll, where post-war testing on the atomic bomb had happened four days prior to the conference. He initiated a bold ad campaign that told the public a two-piece swimsuit was not a genuine bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring” and despite initial outrage and dismay (it was banned in Spain, Italy, Portugal and a few American States) he received 50,000 letters from fans – mostly upper-class European women who embraced the bikini. 

By the late 1960s, cheaper travel meant that Mediterranean sunshine and tan that accompanied it became available to the masses. It was now an art form, with magazines carrying advice on tanning and a variety of products available to help you achieve a deeper tan. Today, people still long for that healthy glow despite obvious health risks and wear bikinis in an attempt to achieve it. Perhaps we need a Coco Chanel to set a new standard for holiday attire. I'm thinking pale skin and freckles and a one-piece. Your welcome.