Never mind El Nino. It's summertime and that means on thing: head to the beach.

Lounging in a chair, dig your toes into the sand and listen to the waves. For a little while at least, problems seem small and manageable: which magazine to read next, how much sunscreen to apply, what to wear later?

The sun-and-surf life has its own style. You reveal a bit more - and relax about it. Tube tops are back. Halters don't seem as if they're only for the young.

Perhaps you wouldn't dare wear a bikini at home. But now, why not? You're at the beach.

"On vacation, you're more casual," says Stacy Altvater, store manager of the Towson South Moon Under, which also has stores in Ocean City, Rehoboth, Annapolis and Bethesda. "People want to wear something sexier."

In fashion, that means two-pieces cut for a variety of figures. Pareos and short sarongs in fabrics that match a swimsuit make for fashionable cover-ups. And sandals, mules and slides finish the look.

Classics still have their place. A crisp white shirt, floral sun-dress and a straw bag work season after season at the shore.

Heather Femia, East Coast fashion director for Nordstrom, swears by an ethnic-inspired scarf she bought several years ago. "If you want the ultimate in versatility, look for a huge scarf you can fold over into a short skirt," she says.

Crochet and embroidery are among the freshest looks of the season.

Tie-dye is done.

For men, Hawaiian-print shirts and trunks are hot. "It looks like an old Elvis movie," Altvater says.

Glamour is the way to go in sunglasses - either big or small. These days, people are buying several pairs to match their attire and attitude. Guess has a new "bikini" line that's thin, sleek and modern.

Great minds are working to take the hassle out of lugging gear to water's edge. There's now a beach-chair tote with insulated coolers and an umbrella that can be carried as one. Another nifty update: a towel bag that combines beach blanket and tote with an inflatable pillow.

What's more essential at the beach than toys? Among the most amusing we've seen: an elaborate sand-castle kit with tools for making lookout towers, bridges and even amphitheaters.

But in the end, it all comes down to this:

"The best accessory at the beach," Altvater says, "is still a great body."

! Pub date: 5/24/98

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