Here we have one of those few areas of clothing where fashion takes second place to fit.
No matter how darling a swimsuit might look off the hanger, if it doesn't fit, even the most devoted fashion hound will probably pass it by. (After all, if a pair of pants fits imperfectly, you can always camouflage it with a long jacket, but when you're wearing a swimsuit, you know you're going to have to get in the water sooner or later).
So, the really big news in swimwear is not the prints and colors of the new season, but the improvements in fit. As the baby boomer ages and problems of flattering fit become a greater problem, swimsuit makers are seducing customers by inventing ever-more ingenious ways to enhance the figure.
Only a few years ago, the unlined, streamlined tank suit was the choice of many, but in 1991, the most popular are packed with special features to uplift bosoms, flatten the tummy and tuck in the rear.
Retailers are also doing more to make the difficult experience of trying on swimsuits a more pleasurable endeavour. When Water, Water, Everywhere opened in the Owings Mills Mall last summer, the owners introduced rose-tinted mirrors to give the skin a flattering glow and equipped the dressing rooms with robes, so customers don't have to redress each time they want to make new selections.
When Suited for Sun opened in a portion of the Sno-Net ski store in Ellicott City last year, it attracted flocks of customers with its innovative concept of custom swimsuits designed via computer.
Short-waisted women, women with long torsos, women with bust sizes over 50 and pregnant women are just a few of those who've benefited from such custom designing, says co-owner Jill McDonald.
In addition, she says, the smallest adjustment can make a difference. "Swimsuits are made to fit the average woman, and if your bottom isn't firm, you might want it a little longer in the back."
And it's not just the difficult-to-fit who're drawn to the store. Ms. McDonald says some women with perfect figures have become regular customers because they like the ease of a swimsuit created with their favorite colors and details.
She believes a little education is necessary to find the perfect suit. "We give women three swimsuits we know they'll like and at least one we know they'll hate, so they'll learn what it is they do like in a swimsuit," she says.
"Sometimes they might come in with a black suit and say this is my favorite suit, I want another suit in black. But it might not be the color they like, but the scoop of the neck or the cut of the leg."
After women decide on a pattern, their measurements are taken, fed into the computer and then the chosen pattern is altered to fit the individual and the swimsuit sewn on the premises. The suit is usually ready within a week and costs from $60-$90.
While the store has offered swimsuits with bust-line boning and shaping, next month it will introduce even more bust enhancement with underwired styles. Another recent innovation is the thong-back suit introduced last month, and soon to arrive is the semi-thong, which gives customers a slightly wider strip of fabric to cover the rear.
If you don't want to custom design your suit, other good possibilities for finding the perfect fit include Cy's swim shop in Catonsville and We Fit in Pikesville. The latter is known more for lingerie than swimwear, but they're skilled in altering suits to accommodate figure differences.
Cy's is one-stop swim shopping for every member of the family, with about 6,000 suits in stock at any time of the year and fresh stock constantly arriving. Sizes just for women range from 4 to 46.
In business 51 years, the suits here are modestly priced from $15 to $60, with the emphasis on serious swimwear such as Speedo and a good selection of such fashion lines as Sassafras, Robby Len and St. Tropez.
"Fit is our claim to fame," says co-owner Marvin Meyer, who employs as many as 18 salespeople during peak season. "If you don't try it on, we don't want to sell it."
While colors and patterns have come and gone in cycles over the many years he's been in business, there's one variable he zTC says never seems to change: "The majority of people always think they're a smaller size than they are."
In the swim: top trends for '91
* Greater bosom focus with boning, underwiring, shirring and wrapping.
* Increased built-in support for tummy and rear shaping.
* Boy-cut legs and skirted suits make a comeback.
* Prints -- floral and geometric in brights and pastels.
* A decline in neons.
* Cutouts, zippers and other '60s detailing.
* Ethnic trims of metallic, embroidery and pearls.
* Return of the matching cover-up, often hooded, in delicate chiffon or rough open weaves.
* For men: more conservative cuts with longer legs.