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Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center

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If you believe that the Heinz History Center is only the repository of solemn, dusty old artifacts, think again: Hidden in plain sight in the special collection exhibit on the museum's fourth floor is a racy piece of fashion design.

There, among a cluttered display of aluminum items donated by Alcoa is a shimmering two-piece swimsuit: a skimpy bikini made of silvery aluminum threads. It was created by fashion designer Oscar de la Renta for a competition held by the local metal giant to encourage innovative and fanciful non-industrial applications of its signature product.

The competition, Alcoa Wrap's Wild and Wonderful Fashion Match Game, held in the early 1960s, yielded many garment entries, including five others by de la Renta. The Dominican-born designer was then a relative unknown, about to launch his own label. What better way to make one's name than by dreaming up wild designs for an international industrial heavyweight?

It's uncertain whether the metal swimsuit was ever modeled, but museum spokesman Ned Schano says many visitors do a double-take when they spot the glittering piece. Surrounded by homier items such as a rug, violin, skis, kitchen table and chairs -- all made of Alcoa's most famous product -- it's not hard to see how visitors might miss the two-piece.

The de la Renta-designed bikini came only a decade after young women caught wearing them would be escorted off beaches by police. Time, of course, has mellowed our perception of the design, and rendered its sighting much less explosive than the nuclear-bomb tests conducted on the atoll of its namesake. In fact, the once-shocking bikini celebrated its 60th anniversary last year.

Considering that, the swimsuit seems to have earned a rightful place in a history museum.

Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center 1212 Smallman St., Strip District. $7.50 ($6 seniors; $5 students; $3.50 children 6-18). 412-454-6000 or www.pghhistory.org

Too cool for the pool: Oscar de la Renta's aluminum bikini
  • Too cool for the pool: Oscar de la Renta's aluminum bikini

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