Maybe it’s because the nineties were the decade when real bikinis came within my reach, or maybe it’s that, as per Jane Pratt’s wonderful theory, my “emotional age” is that of a 17-year-old, but I have never truly moved past the swimwear of the 1990s.
To me, those were the glory days of swimwear: sexy, sporty, and minimalist, embodied by Angie Everhart’s freckled shoulders in a J.Crew scoopback tank suit, scrawny Kate Moss in a tiny top, the supermodels—Christy, Claudia, Naomi, and Linda—in sleek black suits, even the bodacious, red-clad babes of Baywatch. And on MTV, a sand-covered Helena Christensen blew them all out of the water, frolicking in her underwire top and high-waisted boy-shorts in Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” video, directed by the late photographer Herb Ritts. (You didn’t remember the swimsuit? It’s at 1:35.)
For a teenage girl stuck in the Midwest, this was pretty heady stuff—a glamorous life, beachside, with a bod to fill out a swimsuit—be it a scoopback tank suit, stringy triangle top, or strapless bandeau.
Fashion really worked its magic on me then, and my taste in swimwear has never fully recovered. Although I’ve briefly strayed from the nineties—an ex with excellent taste (in swimsuits) once gave me an optic-striped Missoni one-piece, which I wore to shreds, and I still have a knitted green bikini from a swap with a Santa Barbara surfer girl—the styles I always return to are the maillots and mix-and-match separates that my big sister and I spent our teenage summers in, poolside in the 1990s.
Perhaps you weren’t aware the 1990s were such glory days for swimwear. One friend recently recalled the horror of the era’s extremely high-cut legs. American Apparel, for one, hasn’t let this Baywatch-standard-“you’re-just-going-to-have-to-wax-it-all” leg-hole go, but most contemporary swimwear designers have.
Thanks to them, today we have nineties swimwear, 2.0. It has come of age. The cuts, fabrics, and finishing are all a little smarter; the suits still carry the spirit of the decade, but they’re more flattering overall.
Here, a few sources for suits to help you relive those glory days this summer.
“I looked at a lot of images from the nineties,” says designer Rochelle Sara Gan, speaking of her debut swimwear collection. “I was really referencing the supermodel era.”
When Gan, a former competitive swimmer, was growing up in Florida, it was strictly Speedos for the pool; come beach-time she struggled to find a sleek black bikini that spoke her language. “[It] was definitely harder to find in Florida,” said Gan. “It was always about color or print.”
She rights that wrong with a solid-colored assortment of sporty mix-and-match pieces in woven fabrics—less stretchy than the standard knits used for swimwear, but faster drying and, Gan says, more flattering. The black seersucker looks particularly promising.
Onia originated as a collection of men’s swim trunks, and this summer makes a welcome addition to the ladies’ landscape. Its presence hit me like a ton of bricks when my friend Hannah appeared in my Instagram feed, wind-swept and wearing the brand’s Kelly one-piece in black.
Further investigation revealed a collection including Hannah’s perfect tank suit in solids, patterns, and a sea-green paneled version I can’t stop thinking about, along with an assortment of mix-and-match bottoms and tops.
Most of the tops tie halter-style, so if that’s not your thing, Onia may not have your suit just yet. But if the men’s collection is any indication, we’ll be seeing more women’s options from Onia.
Solid & Striped
This New York-based brand first seduced me with its one-pieces, which come in varieties both—you guessed it—solid & striped.
If your all-black swimsuit needs are covered, this is where to come for patterns.
For those whose style is a little on the sweet side, the pink-and-white awning stripes would suit a variety of skin-tones; a black-and-white bikini in gingham or windowpane checks will also be a classic for seasons to come.
Need I say more? I am forever grateful to Jenna Lyons and J.Crew for resurrecting the scoop-back tank suit after I publicly pleaded for it in 2014.
Just like it was in the nineties, J.Crew is still the most comprehensive source for mixing and matching a variety of tops and bottoms, in a bazillion sizes, colors and fabrics, and many—like that scoopback tank—have changed precious little since the nineties, save for a slight lowering of leg-holes, and the addition of some fancier fabrics and a bit of (removable) padding.
Some styles are better for bigger-busted ladies, while others, such as the French top and the bandeau flatter the, well, flatter of chests. There are even some high-waisted boy-short options for your “Wicked Game” re-enactment.