Swim wear is the bimbo of fashion. It gets a lot of attention, but usually the wrong kind. In recent years it's had a mindless, tongue-wagging appeal, but the bodies stole the show because the suits had so little style.

Or just so little. Bottoms were often cut as high as the waist, and tops diminished into weensy bandeaux that only the flat-chested could manage. It was swim wear as serious as the Frederick's of Hollywood catalogue.

"My father used to say, 'Swim wear is like Palm Springs. Underneath all the hoopla, it's just a desert,' " laughs longtime swim wear designer Anne Cole. Her father Fred Cole saw his share: He founded Cole of California, one of the world's largest swim wear manufacturers, in 1925.

But maybe this spring all the hoopla is deserved. For the first season in years, swim wear looks like fashion -- created with wit, imagination, intelligence. And, of all things, memory. Suits are not only less skimpy, but they have frank style and spirit.

"Swim wear has broadened into ready-to-wear," says Jeff Tauber, head swim wear buyer for Bloomingdale's. "It's become a look, and not just something to wear to the beach."

Maybe it's because so much of the spring clothes -- the bra tops and scanty knits -- look like bathing suits that bathing suits have to look like something else. Some look like evening wear. Others look like weekend or workout wear. Some look like underwear. Even more look like scuba gear.

"It's most definitely high fashion these days," says Lavelle Olexa, vice president of fashion merchandising at Woodward & Lothrop.

Fashion as high as it goes. In Paris last month, the bathing suit was presented a place in couture history when Christian Lacroix sent one down the runway -- a handmade, unaffordable, haute couture two-piece.

Lacroix's attentions may herald a Golden Age of Wet Wear, but it didn't materialize overnight. A designer swell has been on the horizon for the last few seasons -- Donna Karan, Bill Blass, Ralph Lauren and Adrienne Vittadini are established in swim wear -- and this year the wave finally broke.

Calvin Klein opened his spring show with a new line of sophisticated swimsuits, as simply shaped and elegant as his spare evening dresses. Louis Dell'Olio introduced an Anne Klein line in waterproof black velvet. And Norma Kamali, who has been designing bathing suits on her own since 1974, is now having her much-acclaimed new line produced and sold by Bloomingdale's.

"Why not go into swim?" shrugs Cole. "The more the merrier. I'm enjoying the new prominence. It makes the swim wear market better."

And the wave of competition has reinvigorated the big companies -- Cole, Catalina, Jantzen, even Speedo. Everyone seems to be making swim wear that is wearable and fashionable. The prices, too, are in line with the labels. The new suits start at $40 for a Cole or Catalina, and go as high as $75 for a Calvin Klein.

Nostalgia is hogging most of this summer's beach blanket. Retro is a style Kamali knows about, since much of her ready-to-wear leans heavily on the past -- the '40s and '50s -- for inspiration. She's designed 19 suits, one for every kind of body. There are high- and low-cut legs, flippy skirts and panel fronts, underwire bra cups and Hollywood halters. And her solid colors are pulled from the past: white, black, a rusty red and a bright yellowy-lime called citron. But while these campy Coney Island looks are more covered up, there is a hitch: They look better if you have a real figure. As in the old days, breasts and hips help.

Vittadini has ventured into the past, too, but timidly. Interspersed with her tame tanks and strapless suits are some ruffled skirts and bra-styled tops in stripes and a halter in gingham checks.

And a Cole of California retrospective will appear on the racks this spring. The mesh-front tank with the plunging neckline that caused such a stir in 1964 has been reintroduced, along with Cole's 1940 "Midriff Suit" in tropical prints.

Far from the Esther Williams esthetic are the supermod styles swiped from the '60s by Liza Bruce, Stephen Sprouse and Keiko. Unusual shapes and colors predominate. Often these suits are done in black-light fluorescents, now called "neon" colors, and it sometimes takes some brains to figure out how to wear them because there are so many cut-out holes. The mod two-piece suits are simpler, cropped tanks and bikini bottoms, but the pieces could be different colors -- an orange top might be sold with a pink bottom.

Kissing cousins to the retro suits are those that look like underwear -- or what used to be called "foundation garments." These one-piece, girdley constructions have sturdy underwire cups and phony bone-ribbed corsetting, circa 1955. And they come in classic lingerie colors: white and black.

There's also a distinct group of dressy looking suits, waterproof wear for a black-tie pool party. Calvin Klein's elegant Lycra creations have the thinnest spaghetti straps imaginable -- the same ones, in fact, that he uses on his evening wear. Donna Karan's suits, which she showed with her big gold jewelry, are equally sophisticated and sleek, sort of bare versions of her body suits. And at Anne Klein there are one-piece tanks in black velvet tricot.

Beyond time warps, the biggest trend is macho-sexy swim wear -- the designs that look like skimpy wet suits. While evening wear and underwear styles might prove suitable for swimming, these high-tech suits look ready for anything -- say, wrestling a shark underwater.

They were first created last year by the innovative California swim wear company Body Glove. Now everybody's making them. With zippers, pockets and other authentic wet suit touches, they come in every possible shape. The two-pieces offer zipped, cropped tanks and a choice of bottoms -- from bikinis to knee-length shorts, much like the bicycle pants of recent years. They are generally black with neon trim, and just enough neoprene and rubber to get the point across. These are butch suits for power bodies -- the sort Brigitte Nielsen could carry off, or any beauty in a Bond movie.

The smartest trend is selling swim wear pieces separately. Several lines offer a range of tops and bottoms in the same fabric -- so there's a choice of bra, halter or bandeau tops and bikini or high-waisted bottoms. Liza Bruce sells her pieces separately, and also makes "over suits," bathing suits that are meant to be worn on top of another. And to further blur the line between beach wear and day wear, many suits come with a matching stretch tube miniskirt that doubles as a strapless top.

Of course, even in a good year, swim wear can seem pretty dumb. But there's one thing dumber than dumb swim wear: tan lines. And the tan lines this year -- from all the serious styles, the midriffs and bra tops and ruffles and bathing skirts -- are going to be really dumb. Well, it's hard to give a bimbo brains overnight.