Another year, another swimsuit, another failure in the name of lycra. I don’t know why it is that with swimming costumes, as with jeans, haircuts and chocolate brownies, we spend our lives in pursuit of The One. We begin each summer daring to believe that this will be the year we’ll find the perfect swimsuit. It will glow from the rail when we walk by, with Handel’s Messiah playing discreetly in the background. It will suck us in where we want to be sucked in, cup us where we want to be cupped, make our skin look radiant and our hair more shiny, and never go see-through or baggy around the bum or fall off on a flume in front of an adolescent school group.
But instead of The One, we get an endless parade of The Wrongs. It seems fair to reason that the less fabric there is in a garment, the more things can potentially be dreadful about it. Nun’s habits are a much of a muchness; they always do their job very well. Bikinis, meanwhile, and underwear, cocktail dresses, hats – all the tiny things in our wardrobes – are fraught with potential faux-pas.
It’s also baffling that after everything scientists have achieved in the last hundred years, the field of swimwear hasn’t developed much beyond a stretchy hanky tied over our rude bits, and a million wafty ways of covering up the whole disaster. There are kaftans, sarongs, towelling playsuits galore, but nobody has stopped to say ‘hmm, why not just make what’s underneath it a tad more flattering instead?’ It still surprises me that they haven’t yet tried to make a swimsuit out of boned corseting. Or given one sleeves. I don’t let my upper arms out under normal circumstances, why should it suddenly be different because I’m immersed in water with half my hair stuck to my face?
As someone who hasn’t worn a bikini since John Major was in Downing Street, I can only appreciate them as an observer. And my main observation is this: triangle bikinis scare me, because I am convinced that they will slip off the wearer at any moment. Sturdier, underwired bikinis are better, but bring with them all the same difficulties as an actual bra in the pinching, squeezing, bulging and bagging arena.
Of course there are also tankinis, the eternal saviour of every body-conscious woman. In theory they’re the perfect solution – they offer the coverage of a swimming costume, but are far easier to go to the loo in and can be rolled up for tanning opportunities. In practise, however, a good tankini is hard to come by. With far fewer prints and shapes to choose from, more often than not they just scream, “I’m wearing this to cover my paella belly!” while the bikinis slink on by.
Then we have the one-piece. so enigmatic a garment that it pretty much warrants its own thesis. For the past few years it has been rapidly shrinking, a new piece of fabric cut away every season until we have been left with something a cyclist might wear to stop people hitting them. Much as I’m in favour of lycra-based experimentation, designers need to learn: we are not stupid. Putting a tiny strip of fabric down the middle of a bikini does not make us believe it is a proper swimsuit.
But enough of the ranting; now onto the good news. There’s a new wave of swimwear arriving this season, with more emphasis on shape and less on skin. We’re completely in love with Red or Dead’s new line Rescue Me!, which is full of beautifully cut one-pieces and demure, well-structured bikinis in the brand’s trademark fun prints. With their adorable, British seaside vibe, these are cossies that hark back to a time before gold lamé and hipbones took over everything. Particular stars are the low-legged Vintage one-piece with sweet nautical buttons, £62, and this Flora number with attached skirt (right), £67 – perfect for balancing chunky thighs or just a spot of poolside twirling.
FrostFrench has also hit the mark with its Floozie range at Debenhams. Despite a disconcerting volume of strapless bikini tops (welcome to sag city), they’ve also done a pleasingly retro swimsuit with chevron panels, and this gorgeous halterneck bikini (left), which can be paired with tie-side briefs or boy-cut shorts.
For reference points, look beyond the Lowes, Lottes and Geldofs of this world and focus on some true swimwear icons. Esther Williams in Ziegfeld Follies. Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot. Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder in the belted white bikini. Bo Derek, running along that beach (braids optional). Think swimwear that hugs your figure, not hangs off it. Swimwear that makes you feel powerful, not vulnerable. Swimwear so good that you consider wearing it with a skirt and heels to the pub. If you find all of that, girls, you may have found The One.
If not – hey, there’s always next year.