When Kourtney Kardashian spent a late-July weekend hanging out at a trendy Miami pool, the celebrity was sporting swimwear that was decidedly modest in design: a black one-piece with a low rise at the hip, and a yellow strapless suit, also a one-piece. Indeed, after years of postage-stamp bikinis dominating the market, more conservative suits are flooding beaches and the pages of fashion magazines. Kerry Washington, the lead in the TV series Scandal, sported a high-necked white number from Lanvin on the cover of Vanity Fair. Modern Family’s Sofía Vergara wore a one-piece on vacation last month. Even Rihanna, an unrepentant exhibitionist, just posted a selfie showing off a demure swimsuit that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in a community pool.
The past few years have seen an explosion of options online for women wanting to obey conservative religious tenets while taking a dip. But now modesty’s appeal has broadened. The swing away from body-exposing beachwear is a spillover of the ladylike, structured designs currently in vogue, says Sarah Kennedy, author of The Swimsuit: A History of Twentieth-Century Fashion. “There’s a hankering for glamour, and that means wearing more.” Vintage features, including ruching, sweetheart necklines, underwires and skirts, are popular features at firms such as California’s Rey Swimwear, which names suits after characters played by Audrey Hepburn.
There’s another factor that’s neither high fashion nor morality: the complicated relationship women have with swimwear. “A bathing suit can’t disguise much. It puts us all on an equal playing field,” says Andrea Graham, an early-childhood educator in Ottawa, who so dreaded swimsuit shopping she clung to a misshapen, drooping maternity suit until her youngest was four. “It kind of hung off me, hiding the new hills and valleys of my midsection,” she says. She finally braved the stores two years ago, buying a black-skirted number. “I feel comfortable and somewhat sexy in it.” But options with coverage and style have been rare. Plus-size model Robyn Lawley launched her collection after being unable to find anything in a size 12 that wasn’t boring or unflattering. Her first collection goes on sale this month.
Similarly, Nicole Bruderer created Lime Ricki with her sisters after her 13-year-old niece, Jasmine, discovered that most alternatives to bikinis looked like “what a grandmother would wear.” Aimed at the teen set, Lime Ricki’s tankinis, boy shorts and one-pieces in bold prints and colours instantly found a market. This year, the Salt Lake City-based firm will ship some 40,000 suits. One went to Emily Wielinga, 19, who lives near Brantford, Ont. After fruitlessly looking in stores for a suit that was stylish, modest and not black, she went online to Lime Ricki and got a floral top with matching boy shorts. A bunch of her friends have bought Lime Ricki suits, too. The other key demographic is young mothers, who can’t worry about wardrobe malfunctions while they’re chasing kids around.
“Options with coverage are our top sellers this season,” says Erin McCormick, women’s swimwear merchandise manager for Lands’ End, the American mail-order firm, which offers thousands of swimwear pieces.
Its new four-piece SwimMates—bikini, skirt and cami—flew off shelves. McCormick has a set. She wears the bikini when out in a boat with her husband, then adds the cami when relaxing with her in-laws on the dock.
Now big fashion concerns, including Calvin Klein and Dolce & Gabbana, are jumping into what was once a sleepy market. The increased competition hasn’t hurt the little guys. Two years ago, Beverly Swimwear’s owner, Beverly Brazier, made 100 suits by hand in Carlsbad, Calif., using her own classic beach-blond looks to model them. This season, she’ll produce 1,000 for customers who can mix and match prints and patterns. Of course, modesty is relative. One of her bestsellers is the Rainbow, a $60 one-piece that balances a conservative neckline with side cut-outs and a back that’s just four colourful horizontal bands—for women who may not want to wear scraps of fabric, but still want to stand out on the beach.