With summer upon us, I’ve been clicking around my go-to shopping websites hunting for a new swimsuit. I am looking for something that works for building sand castles with my 3-year-old niece, rather than something that screams “extra in a Nicki Minaj video.”
And so far, I’m coming up empty-handed.
This year, it appears the fashion world has some particularly weird ideas about what we should wear to the beach. Swimwear designs have always called for a mix of fashion and utility — something that flatters the figure and reflects current trends while enabling the execution of a passable doggie-paddle, at least. But the balance seems especially out of whack now, with functionality all but tossed aside.
Perhaps you’ve seen one of these puzzling but suddenly ubiquitous styles: First, there are the suits held together by a tangle of straps across the chest or stomach, evoking a game of cat’s cradle. The tan lines alone are something to consider. If you forget to reapply sunscreen, will you look like you fell asleep with a waffle iron on your torso?
Then there are the ones with cutouts — some with rows of slits running from bust to hip, others with slivers along the hip bones. It’s hard to imagine these peek-a-boo looks staying in place even if you’re reading a romance novel in a cabana. If you plan to ride a wave or return a volleyball serve, forget it.
And don’t forget the off-the shoulder styles — riffs on the blouse silhouette that lately has become the millennial woman’s summer uniform. They look cute, but you can’t really lift your arms past 90 degrees in them. In other words, they are swimsuits that are unfit for, well, swimming.
These garments are incredibly fussy and seem perfect for exactly one usage: Preening on a chaise lounge at one of those Las Vegas pool parties that charges a cover.
To make sure I wasn’t imagining that these perplexing swimsuits were proliferating, I called Sidney Morgan-Petro, retail editor at trend-forecasting firm WGSN.
“Unfortunately for a lot of people, the strapping and wrapping and lace-up is definitely taking hold in swimwear,” Morgan-Petro said. And she expects the trend to go strong for at least another year.
Granted, if swimsuits were truly about function, we’d all be wearing ones that look like what Katie Ledecky wears when she crushes world records in an Olympic pool.
And of course, fanciful beachwear is not entirely new. Beyoncé has been enabling some of the most mesmerizing paparazzi photos by walking in the surf draped in belly chains or chunky necklaces for years now. And women have long opted to wear different suits for chasing their kids at the public pool than for a romantic vacation with their spouses.
But somehow, this latest invasion of look-at-me swimwear seems especially inescapable this summer. It’s not just daring high-fashion brands that are getting in on the trend. Macy’s, for example, is hawking a Kenneth Cole number that looks like it is held together by pirate-ship netting. Kohl’s is offering high-waisted bikini bottoms with a jumble of straps that are sure to squeeze your flesh like a meat tie around a tenderloin.
Target, the everywoman big-box chain that claims to have the No. 1 market share in the swim business, is also touting the aesthetic. One suit, with a big fabric cross stretching across the belly, is described as offering “slimming control.”
Pro tip: An X on your tummy is never, under any circumstances, going to be slenderizing.
Plus, these overwrought suits can just be a hassle. A colleague confessed she recently had fallen for the Instagram glamour of a complicated monokini (a range of swimwear that includes bikinis where the top and bottom are linked by a fragile fabric isthmus, as well as one-piece suits sliced by so many peek-a-boo cutouts they might as well be two-pieces.)
She knew it was a mistake the moment it betrayed her in some choppy ocean water. It took the help of two friends to tie herself back into it. A swimsuit shouldn’t require wardrobe assistants.
The rise of less-than-functional swimwear makes a bit more sense when you consider other currents swirling in the apparel business. Performance athletic gear, too, is increasingly getting excessively clever. This is why you see mesh or lace panels in your running tights, or elegantly draped yoga tops that inconveniently flip over your face when you do a handstand.
As with every recent sartorial development, social media probably helped create this. When so much of our lives are captured on film and shared with our international network of friends, retailers probably thought they’d best serve us by offering more distinctive swimsuits. (You don’t want that inflatable pool swan to be the most eye-catching thing in your Facebook post, do you?)
But retailers go big with these silly suits at their own peril. I’ve covered the industry for about two and a half years, writing about all kinds of purchases — toys, groceries, electronics, home furnishings. And I can’t think of any category that generates more reader complaints than apparel — specifically, women’s frustrations over their inability to find clothing brands that they deem flattering and inclusive.
These styles are the opposite of what these legions of women are looking for — and are ready to spend big bucks for. Consider the effect of a bikini with corset-style lacing on the hips. Terrific! What woman hasn’t been dreaming of having five muffin tops instead of just one?
Or think about a one-piece with a big hole over the stomach. Ah, the dignity of feeling that you look like a Care Bear.