If what designers say is true, bikini days are back again. They tout the return of the classic string ` those triangles of fabric arranged in all the right places. They've introduced the tankini, a tank top and bikini bottom that's quickly become the season's hottest look. And they're offering more choices than ever in two-piece swimwear, trying to lure the modest and slightly misshapen into baring a bit of midriff this season.
"There's been a complete resurgence in the two-piece ` from the young who wear them for volleyball on the beach to the not-so-young who wear them ... to revisit their youth," says swimwear designer Anne Cole, who now devotes roughly 40 percent of her line to two-pieces, double that of previous years.
With halters, boy shorts and skirted bottoms among the more modest options available, retailers are seeing one-piece devotees giving skimpier suits a second look.
"People who haven't worn a two-piece in 10 years are coming in and asking about them," says Melissa Flake, buyer for Water, Water, Everywhere, which has six stores in Maryland and Virginia.
Sharon Thompson struggles every year to find a suit, trying on what seem like 100 styles in search of one to flatter her long-waisted figure. This year, after five months of working out at the gym, she made a bold purchase: a leopard print two-piece.
"I've worked hard trying to get my body in shape after having child a couple years ago. I figure I might as well enjoy it while I can," says Thompson, 36, who lives in Olney and bought her suit several weeks ago at Water, Water, Everywhere. "I'm not ready for an older suit. I still want something youthful."
Cole believes the continuing fitness craze has been responsible for the two-piece's popularity. "If you've got a great body, why not flaunt it? That's the philosophy," she says.
Since the bikini was introduced in the late 1940s, each decade has at some point glorified it. "I've lived through all the two-piece eras," says Cole. "The '50s bikini was very brief. ... In the '80s, it was excessive with the thong. ... This time around there is a more wearable two-piece."
Flake first noticed bikinis making a comeback two years ago when the media and swimwear companies celebrated the suit's 50th anniversary. She believes two-pieces have caught on because they are practical.
"Today's woman is 10 times more athletic in her suit than she used to be," she says. "A two-piece allows you freer movement. It's cooler."
But Carolyn Moss, director of ready-to-wear for Macys, says manufacturers largely deserve the credit. "The reason the bikini has re-emerged is because the market has addressed itself to fit," she says.
Many companies have begun selling two-pieces as separates, acknowledging what women have long known: The size on top doesn't always match the size on bottom. Some suits now offer hang tags that explain which body type looks best in that suit ` and which flaws are concealed.
Fashion magazines heralded the return of the bikini in provocative ways this spring. A tan, smiling Elizabeth Hurley showed off a red "bombshell" bikini on the cover of Vogue. Kate Moss donned a crystal-encrusted Gucci tankini for Harper's Bazaar. And Allure saved the best for inside: Versace's black leather and silk suit accented with white bows.
Even gossip doyenne Liz Smith recently mused about this less-is-more style. "These items are so minuscule they hardly qualify as bathing suits," she wrote.
But as anyone who's ever worn one knows, bikinis aren't about the right figure so much as the right attitude.
"It all depends on your confidence level," Moss says. "A bikini is about feeling good about yourself and showing yourself off."
While magazines show the sexiest styles, the masses are more cautious about overexposure, particularly since so few women are built like Kate Moss.
Enter the tankini. This hybrid offers comfort and coverage ` while allowing women to feel fashionable.
Newsweek has written about it ("with a tankini, you don't let it all hang out"), and it's already being featured in preview lines for next summer. Tankinis have a sporty, seductive style ` a kind of Victoria's Secret-meets-Nike aura.
Anne Cole believes they are flattering and forgiving to many shapes. "If you're wearing a tankini, you can have a little flab around the middle. It's a kinder, gentler suit," she says.
Adds Flake: "You don't have to worry about stretch marks, tummy bulge. You don't even have to be thin."
There are lots of other choices, including the bandeau, halter, tube or sports-bra top, and the string, boy short, V or skirted bottom.
"This summer, the boy short is blowing everything out of the water," Flake says. "You don't have to be an 11-year-old stick figure to wear that style. ... It really works on a multitude of bodies."
Many two-pieces now address a reality of summer life: Fewer people are sedentary sun worshipers. Whether chasing a child or windsurfing, women want suits that won't ride up or slip down.