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From Chromat to Skims, inclusive design is radically changing the bathing suit silhouette

<i>Ashe Walker</i><br/>Beefcake was inspired by 1920s bathing suit designs for its line of gender-inclusive apparel.
Ashe Walker
Ashe Walker
Beefcake was inspired by 1920s bathing suit designs for its line of gender-inclusive apparel.

Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

When bombshell “Baywatch”-era one-pieces and teeny bikinis reigned in the 1990s, relief for many women came in the form of the tankini — a tank-top silhouette that offered more coverage than most two-pieces, but could still be modest, sporty or sexy. It was one of the few innovations at a time when women’s swim styles only catered to few body types and style preferences — and even got the stamp of approval on Sports Illustrated’s 1990 Swimsuit Issue cover.

But now swimwear has entered a new golden era, and the bathing suit silhouette has changed. Instead of the same rotations of seasonal twists on the same one- and two-pieces, beachgoers can find nearly any style to suit their needs, from gender-inclusive unisuits from brands like TomboyX and Beefcake, to Nike’s modest performance line, unveiled in 2019, which includes a hijab.

And while the influencer-favored loincloth bikini is still around and kicking, there’s also a number of fuller-coverage options hitting the market that still evoke beachy sex appeal. Take Kim Kardashian’s latest Skims endeavor, for example: a swimwear line in a range of sizes with campaign images that call back to the 1980s bombshell vibe. But the styles so far include cycle suits, mid-waist bike shorts and long sleeve one-pieces in addition to skin-baring cut-out “monokinis,” triangle bikini tops and bandeaus.

Women seeking plus-size suits no longer have to accept sparse offerings — at Miami Swim Week in July, designers including Cupshe and Bfyne unveiled size-inclusive collections ranging from cute and tropical to the height of poolside glam.

For Becca McCharen-Tran, founder of New York-based brand Chromat, whose self-esteem-hyping looks have been at the forefront of inclusive swimwear, the shift is a welcome one.

“The culture has changed, and swimwear is changing to meet this cultural moment,” she told CNN in a phone interview. “I think that’s exciting.”

The new ‘pool rules’

Chromat has led the charge over the past decade with experimental designs and campaigns centering diverse models of different ethnicities, body types, abilities, genders and sexualities. The label’s groundbreaking “Pool Rules” campaign made a splash in 2018 with its “Babe Guard,” a playful riff on the lifeguard trope, whose models included breast cancer survivor Ericka Hart, the late disabled-rights activist Mama Cax, and body-positivity advocate Denise Bidot. “Our bodies are where we live,” Bidot wrote in an op-ed for Teen Vogue on the importance of the campaign to her, “and therefore we need to show ourselves unconditional love from the inside out.”

McCharen-Tran said that swimwear has become Chromat’s most popular line — largely because of their campaigns. “Swimwear is this product that combines our ethos of celebrating all body types into this garment that can be so fraught and so vulnerable,” she said. “Our campaigns (were) so different from the mainstream casting choices. I think people really felt personally connected to that message we were sending.”

Chromat’s latest collection, a collaboration with the artist Tourmaline, includes designs for people “who don’t tuck,” offering swimsuits with package pouches created with trans women and non-binary people in mind. The vibrant collection features strappy and buckled separates, cut-out one-pieces, swim skirts and shorts, bustier tops, and sporty zip-up suits.

“There’s not just a singular way that trans women can show up in public space,” McCharen-Tran said of the collection. “We can go against this one expectation of kind of like what womanhood means, or femme means.”

Uniform style

But for many decades, swimwear and womanhood walked a narrow path, dictated by Hollywood ideals.

The 1950s and ’60s heralded many of the first iconic bathing suit designs, according to Jacqueline Quinn, fashion consultant and adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Parsons School of Design in New York. The women who wore them on the silver screen came to define the beach body: Marilyn Monroe in a bedazzled one-piece in the romcom “How to Marry a Millionaire,” Deborah Kerr in a halter suit in war romance “From Here to Eternity,” and Ursula Andress in a white, wide-belted bikini for the James Bond flick “Dr. No.”

“Usually Hollywood was the stepping stone and then magazines would follow,” Quinn said in a phone interview. “There was almost a dictatorship of trend — not going after individuality, but more of a copy-cat sort of mentality.”

The following decades further cemented the archetype of the slim but curvy bikini-clad bombshell, from Phoebe Cates slow-mo poolside daydream sequence in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde” filming Elle Woods’ video essay in a hot tub.

Quinn pointed to the Miracle Suit — a forerunner to shapewear swim apparel from Spanx and Athleta that became popular in the 1990s — as being one of the few brands to offer a wide range of sizing (though thepromised “miracle” of looking 10 pounds slimmer is eyebrow-raising by today’s standards).

Changing tides

Now, Quinn is excited by the innovation she sees emerging in the industry, from Summersalt’s data-driven approach to measure 10,000 women to achieve better fits, to Victory Adaptive’s swimwear for children with disabilities, featuring styles with velcro side closures and openings for feeding tubes.

Rebecca Saygi, a swimwear and activewear strategist at trend forecaster WGSN, agrees that the swimwear industry has become more expansive in who they are outfitting — and for what reasons.

“Brands are becoming wise to the fact that consumers are more likely to buy a product when they see someone they can identify with associated with that product,” Saygi said over email. “Being more inclusive opens brands up to a much wider customer base.”

But she also sees wellness, watersports and activewear having increased influence on the market — in part accelerated by the effects of the pandemic. Those athletic styles serve the needs of beachgoers looking for more skin coverage beyond cover-ups.

“We see brands start to expand into these categories with rash vests, longer-sleeved silhouettes and more functional, slightly more modest swim options,” she said, pointing to labels like One One and Verdelimon.

McCharen-Tran suggested Chromat may also want to explore coverage options for modesty or sun protection, such as swim leggings, but while still prioritizing styles for everyone. That includes the option to wear “a tiny little string” no matter one’s size, instead of making suits that try to “cover up as much of your body as possible.”

“I think it represents a bigger change about how we feel about showing our body. We’re not ashamed of it anymore, and we don’t have to hide it,” she said.

“We’re getting to the place of covering up completely if that’s what you want, or being in a thong if that’s what you want, and everything in between. It’s just different options for everyone to show up to the party.”

Top image: A cycle suit and swim shorts from Skims.

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