Bikinis bow out as one-piece suits stage comeback

Since the 1940s, when bikinis first burst on the horizon, two-piece swim suits have accounted for 70 percent of the annual sales in France. Today these statistics have practically reversed as women rediscover the flattery of sleek one-piece styles in stretch fabrics.

This season when limbs come out of limbo, prototypes are updated versions of Esther Williams's aquacade suits. It's all very splendid if you're young and thin (and if you are, you probably don't remember Esther Williams anyway) but harder on others as the conservative ''dressmaker'' styles with a little shirred skirt are practically nonexistent in France. All Gaul gets a youth complex every summer, and the swimwear designers and manufacturers apparently consider that anyone whose age and hip measurements may be on the other side of 40 had better stay out of the water altogether.

Bikinis are obviously still around for sunbathing, but the big trend is the one-piece leotard suit, a direct evolution of the tremendous boom in active sportswear and training gear. They look marvelous and are wonderfully comfortable for real swimming. (To my knowledge, no one has ever swum the English Channel in a two-piece bathing suit.)

There's also a fashion story in coordination, with all sorts of little shifts , jackets, pareo skirts, giant shawls, and coverups in matching prints and colors. The leotard suits are basically simple, with high cut sides to elongate the legs but intricately detailed with built-in bras (with or without light boning) worked in shirred or draped effects. There are straight-cut decolletes with removable shoulder straps and the classic halter styles with deep bare back.

Patterns and palettes are exotic, with giant floral prints often tracing their origins to the South Pacific Islands or sparked with glitter (gold Lurex threads) for a glamorous midnight poolside party.

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