FOR DECADES, THE BIKINI has been the one-piece bathing suit's prettier, sexier and more-popular younger sister.
But lately, the tried-and-true one-piece has gotten a bit of a makeover -- shedding a few inches in some key areas, adding some key accessories and ramping up its sex appeal.
Strategically placed cut-outs, hardware and daring shapes and colors all have made the new and improved one-piece hipper and more desirable, sparking a noticeable resurgence in the swimwear staple.
"The one-piece swimsuit has been an iconic fashion statement for decades," says Michael Fink, vice president of women's fashion for Saks Fifth Avenue, adding that the company is "seeing an increase in the demand for one-piece swimsuits."
There are many reasons for the comeback, fashion experts say. The biggest is that the one-piece was tired of playing Jan to the two-piece's Marcia Brady.
"When the tankini hit the market, which is probably about eight years [ago] now, it slowly started to replace that basic tank suit," says Bridget Quinn Stickline, vice president of merchandising for Everything But Water, the nation's largest high-end specialty swimwear chain. "So the designers of the one-piece had to go back to the drawing board and think about what it was and why it existed."
Swimwear customers were beginning to buy multiple bathing suits for multiple purposes, Quinn Stickline says, as opposed to just one suit for coverage, fashion and sport. The bikini was the top choice for a fun, sexy item; the tankini -- a popular hybrid of the bikini and the one-piece -- was the suit they bought for more coverage.
"The one piece didn't have a reason to exist," Quinn Stickline says. "So they (designers) basically re-thought the whole idea."
Designers came up with these answers: cut outs, plunges, interesting necklines and elegant or eye-catching hardware treatments.
"So what we're excited about is this now gives us really good coverage," says Quinn Stickline, "and now it's much more fashion-forward and fun to wear, too."
One of the most popular examples of this new, more fun one-piece is the "monokini" -- in essence, a one-piece so sexily-slashed, it could almost be a two-piece, but for a strategically-placed piece of fabric, bead or buckle.
"This is really a sexy, contemporary, seductive kind of suit," says Marsha Howarth, vice-president of Sea Quest, an Ocean City women's clothing store that specializes in swimwear. "What it is basically a two-piece that's attached in the middle. Whether it be an asymmetrical attachment between the top and the bottom, which could be with some kind of innovative hardware, possibly beading, maybe chains or just fabric itself."
The monokini is the one-piece's confident, exhibitionist alter ego.
"What it does is it shows, obviously, your waistline," Howarth says. "And a lot of time it's very bare in the back. It may be attached with string in the back, maybe crisscrossed. It's very hip, very seductive, very eye-catching."
Of all the new, sexier versions of one-piece suits, the waist-revealing monokini is the hardest to wear, Quinn Stickline says.
It's especially for women who are proud of their toned waistlines.
"I see it a lot on women who are thin, but have children," Quinn Stickline says. "They like that [style], because they still feel great about their side curves, but they want to cover that little bit of tummy."
The super-sexy one-piece is a far cry from the one-piece tank suit your mother or grandmother wore -- that bulky skirted thing, made out of wool.
But it was just that chaste style of swimsuit that gave way to the once-shocking bikini. And now, experts say, fashions are coming back to your grandmother's style of swimsuit -- maybe not quite full circle, but at least close to its origins.
"In 1946, the modern day bikini was born, at a time when women were beginning to flirt with new-found freedoms and civil rights," says Amy Covington, style specialist for Belisi Fashions, which offers merchandise as well as fashion blogs and advice. "During the '60s, designers tapped into the wide-spread feelings of rebellion and discontent with social constraints."
But, "now that the 'free-love' days are over and we're all burned out on overexposed models and actresses," Covington says, "nothing surprises us anymore. Girls are learning the value of leaving more to the imagination rather than letting it all hang out for the world to see."
At Nordstrom in Towson Town Center, recently, Randallstown's Elnora Walker, who wouldn't reveal her age, poked through a rack of swimsuits -- specifically looking for a "sophisticated" one-piece to wear on a Caribbean vacation this summer.
Her reason for passing by the bikinis and tankinis?
"Three kids," she said, with a laugh, while pinching a barely noticeable inch along her belly.
Not surprisingly, coverage is one of the prime reasons why many women are opting for one-piece swimsuits.
"While bikinis will always have a place in the sun, even they are less skimpy this year than in prior years, with boy-cut bottoms covering some thigh," says April Masini, author of AskApril.com. And one-piece suits are popular this season, she says, because many of today's pool- and beach-goers are women over 50.
"Baby boomers are more datable, more sexual and more active than ever, and they're hitting the beaches in record numbers," Masini says. "They've found that the one piece is often the most flattering for the majority of them."
For women past their taut teens and twenties, one-pieces often offer hidden controls that a two piece simply can't.
"We have one-piece suits that have tummy tamers, which is like a little girdle sort of thing," says Howarth, of Sea Quest. "We have one pieces that are hip minimizers, waist minimizers; some have bust enhancers. And [bust] minimizers too, for those who are well-endowed and want to cover up more."
In addition, some destination spots are requiring more demure sunbathing attire, says Fink, of Saks Fifth Avenue.
"A common trend we are seeing is that many resorts and cruises are requiring women to be covered up when they are dining or shopping inside, so a one-piece bathing suit is more important to a woman's wardrobe than ever," Fink says.
The one-piece provides more versatility, as well, when going from lounging at the pool to a nice watercress salad for lunch at the resort cafe.
"We have seen sexier takes on a one-piece from designers like Diane von Furstenberg, Vix, Moschino, and Dolce & Gabbana," Fink says, "and our customer has responded positively. [In those,] she can throw on a sarong or skirt for an instant outfit."
Women also are no longer just using their bathing suits for pool-lounging or sunbathing, as their grandmothers once did.
"Instead of sitting by a pool, our customer is chasing after children and grandchildren; she is entertaining by a pool, or she is exercising in the water," Fink says. "There are people who come in our stores who play volleyball or go scuba diving and surfing," Quinn Stickline says, "and they want more coverage."