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Bikinis Finally Go Bust After 50 Years Of Ubiquity


Finally, after 50 years of occupation, itsy bitsy teenie weenie bikinis are retreating from American beaches. We are liberated.

We thought we were liberated before, when bikinis first surged to popularity in the 1960s. Covering up was needless and oppressive. Be free, belly buttons, be free! Yes, the tiny strings of the bikini were a net for the bombshell beauties to drag in their male prey, but merely a snare for the 98ish percent of American women who do not, in fact, look hawt in what equates to poorly constructed underwear.

The freedom to expose by the pool as much as few besides a stripper would be comfortable with is actually a drag, not least because it objectifies women. But it’s also a drag because most of the female kind don’t wear it well. No matter what the body positivity advocates tell females, they know that millions of women will just be wrapping themselves in beach sarongs and stocking up on SlimFast shakes when the first heat wave hits.

For years, you’ve suffered through wedgie picks and boobage adjustments in swimwear seemingly designed from the scraps left over from making the real swimsuits. Where you could actually find those, you had no idea. You fidgeted, tied, and re-tied your little pizza-shaped boob holders out of fear—nay, knowledge—that you’re more likely to spill out of a bikini than pull it off.

Yet even the petite have had tremendous difficulty finding one-piece suits until recently. As Jessica Rey notes in her lecture on the evolution of the swimsuit. “I was particularly frustrated when shopping for a swimsuit when I decided not to wear bikinis anymore,” she said, “because all I could find were things that my grandmother would actually wear.”

Bikinis Are Out, One-Pieces In

But at long last, the one-piece has returned to popularity, much more attractive than the widely unflattering triangle suit and in more styles than ever before. The New York Post has declared that the bikini has gone bust this summer, citing numbers from a retail data company that found “one-piece swimsuits are selling out three times faster than last year,” and the number of one-piece styles has risen 20 percent. Meanwhile, the number of bikini styles has dropped 9 percent.

That’s a steep dip for a design that’s had the swimwear market tied up for more than 50 years, first appearing more than 70 years ago and going from utterly scandalous to totally ubiquitous on American shores within a couple decades of its debut.

But like the bikini, named after a testing site for atomic bombs, the one-piece’s popularity (including the monokini) didn’t explode overnight. It was just a handful of years ago that nearly every swimwear rack in every department store was stuffed with hundreds of monolithically designed micro swimsuits. A couple racks tucked in the back held a few tankinis and one-pieces for plus-size women, but a shopper still in grade school (remember those painfully awkward, self-conscious teenage years?) would be hard-pressed to find comparable coverage in the juniors section, which was one giant tangle of stringy padded triangles.

More of What We Want, Less of What We Don’t

Well, sometime in the past decade, someone must have realized the bikini was no longer “atomic,” but banal. So they said, “Why don’t we connect the two with a band of fabric down the front?” That was the original “monokini,” which in nascence wasn’t terribly imaginative either. But almost tangentially, department stores received the underwire and push-up designs, which are still very popular, even as bralettes are trending. As it turns out, many women are quite happy to lounge poolside in lingerie.

Well, that’s sexy, but if the retailer doesn’t carry your size or if you are not exactly the right size for their product, you’re still risking indecent exposure. You’re probably good for picturesque sun-bathing, but waterslides? Playing with your toddlers in the sand? Heck, no.

As Athleta’s Ariel Bishop told MoneyIsh, “[A woman] wants something that she can wear confidently, without having to constantly adjust…She wants to be able to dive into a pool, or bend down and play with her kid, without the discomfort of her suit getting in the way.”

Yes to sexy, no to picking wedgies and adjusting bosom coverage all day at the beach. You might’ve waited your whole life for it, but the fusion of attractiveness, coverage, and comfort has finally arrived in a “bevy of flattering and daring new styles,” including strappy backs, scalloped edges, and even cap sleeves.

Although sexy never goes out of style, “athleisure” and associated “comfort” styles, including knit shorts, leggings, bralettes, and one-size-fits-all tops are crowding the racks, too. The millennial woman is into form-fitting comfort, so, as Edited’s head analyst Emily Bezzant told Who What Wear, such trends make the one-piece’s increasing popularity unsurprising. With the monokinis especially, as Nicole Lyn Pesce wrote for MoneyIsh, “you can flaunt the body parts you love, while covering up the ones you don’t.” Since the newly popular “cutouts” obviously serve this purpose across ladies’ apparel, that trend won’t wash away any time soon.

Comfort Can Be As Attractive as Attention

According to Edited, the high-coverage and figure-flattering options are selling the fastest, but a whole lot of risky-and-risqué styles are populating the swim shop pages, too, in both one and two-piece forms. Yet the new obsession with multiple thin straps, decorative or functional, doesn’t translate into people wearing them as much Instragram might make it seem. Comfort designs and highly elaborate strappy lingerie-esque pieces are trending tangentially, sometimes intersecting (as with many one-size tops you’ll find peppered throughout Ross or TJ Maxx), but rarely in the case of swimwear.

I expect comfort will gain more territory in the swim department over the long term. As Sarah Halzack notes in The Lily, ultra-strappy swimsuits are even less functional and more of a hassle than simple bikinis. “Consider the effect of a bikini with corset-style lacing on the hips,” she writes, “Terrific! What woman hasn’t been dreaming of having five muffin tops instead of just one?” No kidding. The vast, vast majority of women are fleshy, not toned, so they’ll pooch like soggy pizza dough through an oven rack if they try to wear these tangled numbers.

Of course, a heightened awareness of skin cancer certainly gives the higher-coverage swimsuits an edge as well, rash guards and swim tights included. The rate of melanoma incidences among women have been rising about 1.4 percent per year, and the best way to protect from skin damage, which increases your risk of developing melanoma, is obviously to cover up.

Overall, the current of swim fashion is moving in the right direction by adding new high-coverage, one-piece styles. Maybe more fashion designers have come to the stone-cold realization that 98 percent of American women can’t wear spiderwebs and Band-Aids over their private areas gracefully, but let’s be serious. Most connoisseurs of high fashion care naught about the shape of the average American, and that’s to their financial disadvantage.

The 50-year reign of the bikini tells us two things: 1) That millions of women are suckers, buying pieces that do anything but flatter and 2) The fashion industry seems to be highly resistant to market forces. Women buy what’s available, or else pay big bucks at small boutiques to get a properly flattering swimsuit.

If you’ve surveyed the local beach scene in the past (not creepily, I hope), you probably concluded that most have been doing the former. Maybe the few tiny swimdress startups that have cropped up on the web and gained market share have awakened manufacturers to the reality of what the majority of women want: not to scandalize beaches with microkinis, but to grace them in cute but sensible swimwear that flatters their body shapes.

We’ve Still Got More to Cover

I relish the idea that the itsy bitsy swim staple might soon have a market share its own size, but there’s still more progress to be made. That straps are the new lace is not a positive development for softer forms, and there’s still significant cleavage between what consumers need and what’s being provided in that loathsome corner of the apparel department.

Young teens are under-supported. Designs for their size seem to be predicated on the bizarre notion that girls have pancake chests until one day they wake up with muffin chests. Pregnant women are also underserved, either having to order a boutique maternity swimsuit online for more than they want to spend, or resigning themselves to buying bikinis precisely when they’re most self-conscious about their ballooning bodies.

When decision-makers from designers to retailers check out the reality that swim shopping is generally an anguishing experience and most women look nothing like those models on Instagram, they could do a lot to ease women’s frustrations and build their confidence, which is what the proliferation of high-coverage, one-piece styles is currently doing.