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How to Wear a Retro Bathing Suit

Take a hint from '50s styling if you want to look chic beachside but still be able to clear a breakwater or two.
Take a hint from '50s styling if you want to look chic beachside but still be able to clear a breakwater or two.
Carl Sutton/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As anyone over 30 will attest, fashion trends have a habit of coming back when you least expect it. Who would have anticipated the return of '80s-style, off-the-shoulder sweatshirts? Or white denim? It would be a fashion marvel were it not so predictable.

The early 21st century has brought us even further into past, with swimwear recalling decades as early as the '30s, when legs were lower, busts were covered, and the navel was a serious no-no. But man did Lana Turner make it look hot.

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Here, some tips on wearing styles from the '30s through the '60s, decades that produced swimwear most noticeably old-fashioned -- and fabulously so. The best part? You may find that going retro makes it easier to look gorgeous by the pool …

A bandeau top and high-cut bandana-print brief made for a still-functional 1960s bikini.
A bandeau top and high-cut bandana-print brief made for a still-functional 1960s bikini.

Feeling great in a bathing suit may not be in your repertoire -- but really, it could be. Retro looks tend to be more modest than modern ones, and ultimately it all comes down to knowing what suits you, so to speak.

Some retro styles are easier to wear than others. Consider these tips:

  • If your thighs are lean, a low-cut leg will draw attention to that. You can wear practically anything from these decades (and beyond).
  • If your thighs are bigger than you like, draw attention away from them -- something skirted can provide more coverage, and a "wow" factor on top will draw the eye up.
  • If you're soft in the middle, choose a one-piece or something with a tummy panel. You'll find a fair number of retro swimsuits with built-in shapers.
  • If your abs are your best feature, go with a true bikini that bares the entire midsection.
  • For overall shaping, a "corset-style" maillot can work wonders, pulling you in, pushing you out, and holding everything up.

With this in mind, find the decade that works for you …

Lace up your espadrilles! The unstructured tops of these 1930s suits helped balance the low-cut leg -- a perfect style for beach escapades.
Lace up your espadrilles! The unstructured tops of these 1930s suits helped balance the low-cut leg -- a perfect style for beach escapades.
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Most of the vintage-style suits on the racks now have a few things in common: They provide a fair amount of coverage (especially in the rear), the leg is low-cut and they've got some glamour going on. Different decades, though, do offer their own features. For instance:

1930s

With the lowest-cut leg, a '30s-style swimsuit is almost tunic-length, often with an attached skirt. A self-belt might add some interest at the waistline.

1940s

A retro-'40s suit has a low-cut leg without the skirt; it might have a sexy halter top and strategically placed ruching, which is great for covering up imperfections. It may also be a two-piece, revealing a few inches above the navel.

1950s

In the '50s, corset-style boning came on the scene. A mid-century suit can provide the shape you weren't born with or accentuate what you've already got. It can also stay put in the ocean.

1960s

Bikini time! That means a two-piece revealing some skin below the navel, still with a low-cut leg (but higher than decades past). It's probably a print, and it may very well have yellow polka dots.

"Retro," of course, is not the same as "vintage." Modern twists on classic looks can offer welcome updates. Some retro styles feature beading, crystal accents, cutouts or military details that bring a decades-old look into the present.

The suit, though, need only be the beginning. There's so much more to retro swimwear.

If you're going 1956 retro, ditch the water shoes -- cat eyes, a scarf and the requisite beach ball complete the look.
If you're going 1956 retro, ditch the water shoes -- cat eyes, a scarf and the requisite beach ball complete the look.
Lambert/Getty Images

Sunbathing was once an event to dress for, and retro swimwear has the advantage of encouraging retro accessories. In short, you can go all out.

Any of the following accessories can complete the ensemble and will accent a suit from whichever decade (or combination of decades) you choose:

  • A boldly printed sarong
  • A high-, mid-, or kitten-heel slide for by the pool
  • A wide-brimmed hat, preferably floppy and glamorous
  • Starlet-style sunglasses (giant or cat-eye lenses)
  • Statement earrings, necklace, bracelets or ring

What you've got now isn't a look, it's an ensemble, and it's begging to be shown off -- at, say, a gimlets-and-hula-hoops pool party. Fashion isn't the only trend that's allowed to come back around. You haven't lived until you've sipped a gimlet in a sarong.

For more information on swimwear, retro trends and other fashion topics, look over the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Emmanuel, Lisa Orkin. "Retro Swimwear Finds a Place at Miami Beach." The Seattle Times. July 22, 2009. (March 11, 2011)http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/living/2009518860_webswimfashion22.html
  • Sherman, Lauren. "Retro Swimwear Comes Back." Forbes. June 5, 2009. (March 11, 2011)http://www.forbes.com/2009/06/05/retro-swimwear-fashion-lifestyle-style-retro-swimwear_slide.html
  • Wilson, Eric. "Out With Vegas, In With Vamp." The New York Times. May 15, 2008. (March 11, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/15/fashion/15SWIM.html?_r=1&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss&pagewanted=all

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