BEACHY KEEN Swimwear makes transition into evening

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At last! After decades during which bathing suits seemed designed by men -- or perhaps by women who ate only lettuce -- this year's swimwear is designed to enhance the figure. On top of that, designers are offering coverups that not only flatter but can be worn off the beach to lunch and even, according to some, to dinner.

How could this be?

Has fashion become flattering and functional?

You decide: This year, the hottest swimsuits have fancy hTC underwire bras, legs that aren't cut up to the hip and beyond, as well as lots of metallic or jewel trim. They come with equally beautiful and sexy coverups from sarong-style skirts to oversized lace shirts.

And some are so fashionable that they can be teamed with long or short skirts and bright jewelry -- and worn anywhere from beach to party.

For example, a stunning Middle Eastern-motif swimsuit with metallic trim by Gottex comes with a matching belly dancer-style skirt with a thigh-high slit. Or perhaps you'd prefer suits made by Catalina with hard-cup, underwire bras, decorated with elegant trim inspired by Cleopatra. And "most of them come with a skirt or flowing, pretty, pull-on harem-type pants," says Tracy Rasmussen, swim- suit buyer for JC Penney.

Admittedly not everyone would feel comfortable wearing a bathing suit and belly dancer skirt to dine and dance, but some bathing suits do resemble body suits made popular as street and evening wear by Donna Karan. "It's a simple, clean look -- a body hugging underpiece worn with bold, bright jewelry," says Roseanne Morrison, fashion editor for Tobe Report, a retail advisory agency in New York.

In part, this year's beachwear was a response to an aging population -- the average age of American women is 33. "The lowering of the leg in swimwear is for women who are older -- they do have problems with certain parts of their figures. They want swimwear that's more modest," says Ms. Morrison.

Indeed, it seems many designers took a good, hard look at the figures: "The big shirt that's so popular covers the thigh. The underwire enhances and pushes the bra up. These are things the industry has ignored for years," Ms. Morrison says.

In addition, during a time when many budgets are strained, shoppers are happy to find a bathing suit that can be worn off the beach, says Joan Kaner, fashion director for Neiman Marcus. "I think if you go into a bathing suit department and you fall in love with a suit and you say, 'Gee, I can get double duty out of this,' you're far more likely to buy it."

But factors other than finance influenced this year's beachwear, as well. As part of the overall trend of drawing inspiration from the past, many designers took their leads from the pinup girls of the '40s, whose voluptuous figures were popularized during World War II -- to say nothing of being painted on the noses of aircraft.

"It's the glamour girl look, the pinup girl with the mature figure: well-endowed with a 'lower-leg suit,' that was the ideal at the time. It wasn't the skinny body," says Ms. Morrison.

Then along came Madonna, whose uplifting approach to fashion has everyone sporting underwear as outerwear. Subsequently, "the constructed bra treatment has become a way of life, and a fact of life. What the customer has finally realized is the construction is only complementing her figure," says Ms. Rasmussen.

And "we find people buying coverups to complement their swimsuits. They are beautiful, absolutely beautiful . . . a look that inspires wearing swimwear attire out dancing."

At Ruth Shaw, coverups that are most popular include sarongs, mini-sarongs or pareos, oblong pieces of material like scarves that wrap and tie into a skirt or a bandeau. "Sarongs are so practical," says Ruth Shaw. "You can fold it up into a square, they don't wrinkle and you can just take them out and tie them on." (The sarong look would be most fitting as evening wear in resort locations, she says.)

The sarong is also the hot, hot, hot seller for Spiegel this summer, says Cathy Bernardi, Spiegel's fashion development coordinator. "TheOscar de la Renta sarong far exceeded our expectations," she says. "But the whole wrap-around skirt look is a strong statement in sportswear, too." And many women find the gently draping, flowing look of a sarong very flattering: "Let's face it, there are a whole lot of body typesout there," she says.

At Neiman Marcus, however, pareos and sarongs are being overtaken in popularity by looks made possible by Lycra. "They are being replaced by the more body-conscious looks like leggings and biker shorts. The pareo is more simply a beach look that you wouldn't really wear elsewhere," says Ms. Kaner of Neiman Marcus.

Beach-goers "wear the leggings and either a shirt or pullover tunic in the same print or a print and a solid. You can wear these to go into the restaurant or from the lobby of a hotel to the swimming pool."

The big shirt -- so popular in street fashions these days -- is also selling well as a beach coverup. "The big, over-sized, guys' button-down shirts are what's really popular and not just white, but the fun brights," says JC Penney's Ms. Rasmussen. The shirts also come in very feminine lace or sheer fabrics in black or white. "They're sheer and comfortable and cool," she says.

Younger women are also buying the perennial favorite: T-shirts. And they're wearing them in bright colors with emblems from geckos (lizards) to Mickey Mouses. Another big seller among the younger set has been nylon, pull-on shorts in colors such as watermelon, tangerine and apple green, says Ms. Rasmussen. "Perhaps the best thing is that these looks are not only fashionable but they make the customer feel more comfortable when she puts on her suit."

Versatile togs

Here's what people will be wearing on the beach -- and off -- this summer:

* Bathing suits with bra interest: underwire, jewel and metallic trims.

* Maillots, trimmed or not, that double up at lunch or in the evening as part of a sleek, body-conscious look, teamed with bright jewelry. They even can be worn under suit jackets.

* Trapeze dresses in lightweight fabrics as fashionable beach cover-ups.

* Oversize, button-down shirts in solids, or in black or white lace.

* Sarongs -- long or short, depending on how much you want to bare.

* Leggings in a lighter weight Lycra for summer. They can be ankle-length, mid-length (called Capri pants) or the bikers' length.

* Big T-shirts to go over leggings. --H.S.

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