Golly! Be a Hot Tamale in Kamali

From there the trend gained momentum: ’40s-issue haltered or strapless ruched one-pieces and high-waisted, halter-topped two-pieces have continued to inspire glossy magazine photo shoots this summer, and have also saturated the market in a downward direction, popping up at J.Crew, H&M and, most notably and extensively, Urban Outfitters, home to an improbably large and well-trafficked online bathing-suit shop that currently offers full-coverage one-pieces in gingham and plaid.

Customers are “going for a total look,” said Ms. Wolff. “They’re going to the beach and, instead of wearing a T-shirt and shorts, they’re wearing a cover-up.”

In other words, this is about fashion, not fat. Swimsuits, after all, popped up in the early 20th century as utilitarian objects meant to allow women the freedom of movement to swim. Frenchman Louis Reard turned them into sex objects with his invention of the bikini in 1946. Have women, in effect, taken them back by turning them into conscious fashion statements—i.e., refocusing the attention on the suit, not the boobs?

Ms. Wolff was unconvinced. “If you ever put on one of those suits, it’s a very tight-fitting suit,” she said. “It’s a sexy swimsuit. The retro thing is not all about being covered up.”

Flesh and Fureblows

However tight, some women—rather than heralding retro swimsuits as instruments of liberation, allowing us make our beach-side look more
about style than how many crunches we’ve done lately—would prefer to look overtly sexy than fashionable, thank you.

“I just feel more feminine in a bikini,” said Denise Margulies, 41, a personal trainer who lives on the Upper East Side, back at Bloomingdale’s. “I feel sexy in a bikini. I don’t even want to tan in a swimsuit like that”—she motioned dismissively toward a rack of colorful solid-colored Carmen Marc Valvo one-pieces—“and I love tanning. I like the belly button to show. And I’m a mother. I feel too matronly in a suit like that.” (Though, it should be noted, Kate Winslet’s character in the 2006 movie Little Children selected a red retro-inspired, plunging-neckline one-piece for her coming-out as a MILF.)

The retro suit, Ms. Margulies speculated, is probably best left to “very busted, very buxom women. Not athletic-looking bodies. Very full-figured. Not that there’s anything wrong with full-figured.”

Whether targeted at lithe hipsters or women whose bodies channel the original pin-ups, who were much fleshier than today’s most glamorous stars, the retro trend is not undergoing its first revival. “Silhouettes and details that were popular in the 1940s and 1950s are back,” proclaimed The New York Times in 1990. “These include wide shoulder straps, plunging halters, midriff shirring, front draping, attached sheaths and skating-style skirts.” (O.K., fine, maybe we can leave the “skating-style skirts” in the last century.) And now, cheap, ubiquitous mass brands have lent the whole enterprise of shopping a “Why not try it once?” feeling, ushering in a modern era when trends move faster than ever, trend loyalty is nonexistent and a woman might buy a modest, retro Jantzen one-piece a few clicks after purchasing a barely-there Melissa Odabash string bikini.

But if swimwear is now subject to fashion’s breakneck silhouette changes and also its wider range of choices, there is also perhaps a lost, essential glamour that has propelled the rise in modern interpretations of the pinup swimsuit, specifically: pre-Britney, pre-celebrity-cootch-flash, pre-“Reese: Pregnancy or Bloat?” headlines, harking back to a time when flesh still had the dint of the new, when sex was something to suggest rather than to have on YouTube, when we weren’t all exhausted and financially depleted by our draconian waxing and lasering routines. “It’s much more about sensuality than sexuality,” said Ms. Fischelis.

Recalled Gloria, a saleswoman at Bloomingdale’s, with no small amount of nostalgia: “Last year, we had a white suit by Carmen Marc Valvo. A young woman in her 20s, she bought it. Oh my God, she looked like a throwback from the ’50s. The ’40s or ’50s. She’s tall, I think she was blond. … And it was a creamy suit, and she looked—oh! She really looked good.”

Additional reporting by Leigh Kamping-Carder

Golly! Be a Hot Tamale in Kamali