WAVE OF NOSTALGIA

The Baltimore Sun

Fashion-savvy bathing beauties know that what was sexy yesterday can look a little tarty today. Especially when one of the hottest trends this summer is more conservative, vintage-inspired swimwear from designer lines like Betsey Johnson, Trina Turk and Juicy Couture.

The one-piece suit is making a comeback in a big way -- across the board from all manufacturers. Of course, there are still lots of skimpy bikinis to be seen at pools and beaches this summer, but those who really want to be fashion-forward are going retro.

These vintage-inspired suits don't quite look like your grandmother's bathing costumes. And they are definitely not the bathing suits that women of a certain age and shape might buy from a catalog, with slimming control bottoms or skirts to hide the top of their thighs.

They reference old-fashioned swimwear, but often have a modern twist that makes them fresh. If there's a skirt involved, for instance, it's a micro mini.

Stop in at the Everything But Water store in Towson Town Center, and you'll find that half the high-end styles that the largest swimwear retailer in the country carries have some vintage detailing or feel.

"It's huge," district manager Aneela Rehman says. And, she adds, teenage girls are buying many of these suits.

There are two main directions the retro trend takes: Some styles are youthful, sweet and demure but very feminine; others are going for glamour a la Esther Williams rather than an overtly sexy look.

Designers are showing one-piece swimsuits with bandeau tops, ruching and a lower leg line. They have all the coverage -- but also the sex appeal -- of the white bathing suit Marilyn Monroe wore.

This spring, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld held his cruise collection show around the scallop-shaped pool at the Raleigh Hotel in Miami, the pool Esther Williams made famous. The competitive swimmer, who was also a popular movie star in the '40s and '50s, would have felt perfectly at home in some of today's vintage styles.

"It's a backlash to the supersexy swim," says Jade Frampton, an editor at Elle magazine. "Women always want to feel glamorous, and they don't necessarily have to show skin to feel that way."

The best thing about this look is that it's flattering for all body types, she points out, unlike the plunging necklines and high-cut legs of past years.

'Too much skin'

Clare Sengupta, 20, will be a senior at Johns Hopkins University. She's shopping for a new swimsuit this season and likes the new styles. She's looking for a vintage-inspired one-piece and describes the retro suits as "feminine, sexy and stylish."

Sengupta thinks something with a halter-top, cut lower at the leg, would look good on her, and for the first time in years, such a suit is available in the stores and in style.

In past seasons, she points out, swimsuits "either showed too much skin or were just ugly."

This summer, even two-piece swimsuits can be more modest without seeming dowdy, perhaps boy shorts and a halter-top. Suits may be shirred, gathered or skirted, with details like bows and ruffles. Florals, feminine prints, polka dots and gingham are also part of the look.

Part of the reason these styles are popular now, of course, has to do with the cyclical nature of fashion. Styles had gotten about as extreme as they could get. Jeans couldn't go any lower. Clothing couldn't get any tighter.

"Swimwear is going to reflect fashion," says Gregg Andrews, fashion director for Nordstrom's eastern region. "Fashion is moving away from looks that are overtly sexy. Swimwear isn't necessarily about looking like a pinup anymore, but being fresh, athletic and feminine."

Julie Franzone, 18, who will be at the University of Maryland in the fall, recently bought herself an Anne Cole one-piece suit with a bandeau top and cut lower at the thigh. It's black with little polka dots. She describes herself as "a huge history buff," which is one reason vintage appeals to her. "I love the '40s and '50s."

"Today's kids try to stand out and not blend in," she says when asked about the appeal of these suits. "Dressing retro is one way to do that. It's a way to stand out, but still look classy."

Teens buying the look

South Moon Under, a regional chain that specializes in youthful high fashion, carries eight different styles of what marketing assistant Michelle Pipitone calls a "one-piece with a retro vibe" from Juicy Couture. She thinks younger customers are buying the look simply because it's "all over the magazines, along with a large hat, big sunglasses, wedges and a see-through cover-up. It's such a high-fashion trend."

Still, it may seem surprising that teenagers are willing to buy swimsuits that their grandmothers might have worn. Not so, says Andrews. "It looks new to them. There's something very sweet about these styles. They are inspired by the '40s bathing costumes, but still have a youth factor, with eyelet-type details."

It's also for women who are young in spirit, he says. "It's swimwear for women who are probably healthier and in better shape but just a little older."

There's always speculation about why certain styles catch the public's eye at a certain time, beyond just the flow of fashion. Much has been written about the Hemline Effect, showing that hemlines rise and fall with the state of the economy. While Laird Borrelli, a senior features editor at Style.com, wouldn't link more conservative swimsuit styles with a faltering economy, she does point out that the 1940s were a time of anxiety, like now, because of the war.

"There's a mood of caution," she says. "Really flashy displays strike the wrong note. [The country] is in a more conservative mood. We're not driving around in a convertible in bikini tops. We're taking 'staycations.' And clothing is more conservative."

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

Swimsuit details

Look for these vintage features in swimwear this season:

One-piece suits

Bandeau tops

Strap behind the neck

Lower leg line

Ruching, gathering and shirring

Details, details -- like ruffles, bows, little belts, buttons and gold rings

Skirts, even if they are micro-mini

High-waisted boy shorts and halter tops

Gingham, florals, polka dots and feminine prints

Classic colors like white and navy

[ Elizabeth Large]

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