Beauty At The Beach Takes A Retro Turn

Originally published on June 15, 2012 10:18 pm

With summer looming, it's time to prep for your vacation (or, for many in these financially tight times, "staycation"). The good news? A trip to the beach or the pool. The bad news? You need a swimsuit.

But the fitting-room-phobic can take heart in a trend that's seized the swimsuit industry lately. It's a retro look that includes high-waisted bikini bottoms, ruffles, halters and more.

Retro Trend Echoes A Glamorous Time

Robin Givhan, who writes about style and culture for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, says some women are drawn to the suits because they cover up a bit more skin than other styles.

"They're still sexy and they still are very playful," Givhan says. "And I think that's what draws people to them — that they don't feel like they're matronly, which is the last thing you want to be on the beach."

Givhan says their popularity has been buoyed by shows like Mad Men that hark back to a lost and glamorous time. She notes, however, that most of the suits are designed for posing poolside, not serious laps.

"These are not really swimsuits that you think of when you envision someone on the high diving board," she says.

Suits Focus On Aesthetics, Not Athleticism

The re-emergence of the styles can also be credited to high-end designers who Givhan says are focused on aesthetics — not athleticism. She says those designers are most concerned with "projecting a sense of glamour; a kind of leisure class."

"And then you throw in the fact that no longer do women feel that they sort of age out of swimsuits," she says. "But the swimsuits have to be tweaked a little bit to really flatter a body that's perhaps 50 years old versus one that's only 20 or 21 years old."

She says one reason consumers are buying in is the recession. Contrary to what might be expected, she says, in a down economy consumers are drawn to special clothing and not basics.

"That means you're not going to go and look for the simple black Speedo," she says. "You're going to be more inclined to go with something that is bright pink and polka dot with ruffles on."

So women who might not have the means to get away to a beautiful, exotic island still want to indulge in something that will make them feel special, she says. Even if they're just lying by the pool at the local YMCA.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

With summer just around the corner, it's time to prepare for your vacation, or in this economy, your staycation. The good news: that may mean a trip to the beach or at least the pool. The bad news: that may also mean buying a swimsuit. But for the fitting room phobic, take heart in a curious trend that sees the swimsuit industry, a certain retro look, high-waisted bikini bottoms, ruffles, halters. It's taken over.

To trace the roots of this trend, we turn to Robin Givhan, special correspondent for style and culture at the Newsweek Daily Beast Company.

Hi there, Robin.

ROBIN GIVHAN: Hey, how are you?

CORNISH: So, first, give us more detail about the look of this new trend.

GIVHAN: Well, one of the nice things about it is that it's a little bit more covered up, although there's a lot of leg. There's still a lot of arm and back and shoulder. I mean, they're still sexy and they still are very playful and I think that's what draws people to them, that they don't feel like they're matronly, which is the last thing you want to be on the beach.

CORNISH: So give us a sense of what it looks like. What are sort of the movie star images we associate with this kind of suit?

GIVHAN: Mostly, we think of glamour. Someone like a Lana Turner or a Rita Heyworth sort of lounging on, you know, a chaise by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. These are not really swimsuits that you think of when you envision someone, you know, on the high diving board. So they're really meant a little bit more for posing than for laps.

CORNISH: Help us trace this trend. Is there a particular runway or photograph where this started? And I'm really hoping you're not going to say it's about the TV show "Mad Men."

GIVHAN: I'm really sorry to disappoint you.

CORNISH: Oh.

GIVHAN: Well, I think a couple of things are at work. You know, there is the "Mad Men" influence, and because a lot of these trends are starting at the high end market, you're really talking about designers who are not specifically swimsuit designers, so they're not really focused on the athleticism of swimsuits. They're focused on the aesthetics. And, for them, it's about projecting a sense of glamour, a kind of leisure class. And then I think you throw in the fact that no longer do women feel that they sort of age out of swimsuits, but the swimsuits have to be, you know, tweaked a little bit to really flatter a body that's perhaps 50 years old versus one that's only 20 or 21 years old.

CORNISH: You've written that the fashion industry has essentially been ignoring the recession, sort of designing for the one percent.

GIVHAN: Yeah.

CORNISH: And we've talked about, on this show in the past, people turning - in economic times and tough economic times - to, say, color when they can't spend more. So what about this particular fashion speaks to that instinct we have of a certain kind of indulgence in the face of tough times?

GIVHAN: Well, one of the most interesting things to me about the way that consumers have responded to the fashion industry as the economy has weakened is they've sort of been counter-intuitive. Instead of going and looking for things that are basics and things that have a long shelf life, they've focused more on things that are special.

That means you're not going to go and look for the simple black Speedo. You're going to be more inclined to go with something that is bright pink and polka-dot with ruffles on it because, if you're not going to get a chance to go away to a beautiful exotic island, there's a part of you, I believe, that really wants to at least indulge in something that's going to make you feel special, even if you're just lying by the pool at your local YMCA.

CORNISH: Robin, thank you so much for talking with us.

GIVHAN: My pleasure.

CORNISH: Robin Givhan, special correspondent for style and culture at the Newsweek Daily Beast Company. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.