Golly! Be a Hot Tamale in Kamali

On a recent Friday, the bathing-suit department at Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street was bustling. Pat Walsh, 54, a slim blonde administrative assistant from Staten Island, was inspecting a retro-inspired red polka-dot Anne Cole one-piece with thick straps and a bosom-enhancing sweetheart neckline for an impending trip to Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic. “I always think more is better,” she said. “Like, more of a swimsuit, more coverage.”

“Sometimes they all look the same to me, these suits,” she continued. “But I just thought, ‘Wow, I haven’t seen a polka-dot suit—I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one! So I’m going to try it on. I think it would be flattering to me.”

This season, swimsuit designers have pillaged the demure 1940s and 1950s and produced a barrage of modest, coy options like the polka-dot Anne Cole one-piece admired by Ms. Walsh. These are suits that channel Marilyn Monroe circa 1945, back when the leg was titillating enough and the thong was but a twinkle in some evil man’s eye. When famous women had curves that swimsuits cinched and smoothed and accentuated. When swimsuits helped things, in other words, rather than stranding a girl alone with her stomach flab like their successor, the string bikini.

On the high end are Norma Kamali’s much-coveted Bill Mio suits ($350), which have the ruched bodice and generous proportions of the suits ’40s swimming champion-turned-sexy movie star Esther Williams wore. (Interestingly, Ms. Kamali started making swimwear in 1970, at the advent of a long, dark American love affair with skimpiness. This culminated in the ’90s with the Brazilian-exported thong, at which point women said, collectively, Please!)

On the low end, trendy, youthful retailers like Urban Outfitters and Juicy Couture have embraced modest, sweetheart-necklined one-pieces, perhaps meant to be worn ironically to one’s Hamptons share house or to sunbathe at McCarren Park. After all, for the fit 20-something, a gratuitously modest suit is almost more transgressive than an eentsy bikini. It says, approximately: My body is so hot that I don’t even have to show you how hot it is.

‘A Little Tension’

“I like how the ruffles cover your chest and add a little tension without revealing too much,” said designer Araks, who makes a popular retro-inspired two-piece with a halter top and high-waisted bottom that retails at La Petite Coquette. “It’s flirty, but it still has an innocence to it.”

At Macy’s, reissued Jantzen one-pieces, marketed by a glossy ad campaign featuring the model Carolyn Murphy (whose sex tape disappeared quickly, demurely from the collective radar), have been flying off the shelves this year and hard to find online since March in sizes under 8. “This whole retro trend is in general in the fashion world,” said Nicole Fischelis, the store’s fashion director. “There is a fusion of contemporary, today and yesterday, whether the ’40s, ’50s or ’60s.”

But at Bloomingdale’s, the retro trend—rather than striking customers as a welcome reprieve from the low-slung bikini or a subversive fashion statement—seemed to be perplexing more than a few (retro styles by Anne Cole, Carmen Marc Valvo and Juicy Couture abounded, but the string and bandeau bikini still ruled the sales floor). “Probably for someone who’s not particularly athletic or sporty,” sniffed Kathy Voss, 30, a tourist from London. “It’s a more ‘look at me’ swimming costume, rather than the ‘I’m going to swim 20 kilometers.’”

Then again, this is precisely the costume required by the lazy-skinny girl of the moment, the one who eschews Equinox for Spanx, just like grandma.

But “if you’re in your 50s or 60s, that kind of look isn’t going to work,” argued one shopper, Patricia Keenan, 55, an artist. “It’s more va-voom, a younger look. Otherwise, it looks kind of silly.”

Indeed: this season’s retro swim trend began with aggressively undemocratic high-fashion runways, not with an altruistic desire to make swimsuit shopping more pleasant for the average middle-aged beachgoer with trouble spots. Designers like Stella McCartney, Michael Kors and Miuccia Prada sent full-coverage swim bottoms with retro details like halter tops, belts and ruffles down the runway between 2004 and 2007, accessorized with turbans, oversize sunglasses, diaphanous shirts and high, high heels, and suddenly, swimwear was glamorous again. (Fitness trends, beach volleyball, and US Weekly’s continuous stream of emaciated, bikini-clad celebs hadn’t been helping things.)

A barrage of magazine spreads followed, including, memorably, Scarlett Johansson’s April 2007 Vogue cover, which featured the starlet in vintage-inspired Prada and Dolce & Gabbana suits accessorized with red lips and high heels.

“Every year you see more swimwear on the runway,” said Ms. Fischelis.

“We started seeing [retro suits] on magazine covers probably two years ago, and it became very aspirational,” said Donna Wolff, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of swim at Bloomingdale’s.

Golly! Be a Hot Tamale in Kamali