Vogue Australia’s Senior Fashion Features Editor, Alice Birrell, on the renewed fashion appeal of the all-in-one swimsuit.
First, a confession. I was enlisted a few years ago as part of a ‘versus’ column on swimsuits: bikini against one-piece. I was the bikini’s affirmative representative, battling a fellow editor, I invoked Dame Diana Vreeland’s dubbing of it as the ‘swoonsuit.’ I defended its skimpiness, its loaded-gun allure, its vim and vigor — its place as the status quo of swim. I had tried the odd one-piece, but they had languished in my wardrobe.
But in recent times, I’ve changed my views. In Australian summer, swimming is quotidian; the post-work dip is ritual, the weekends spent like Sydney rock oysters, clinging to the sandstone outcrops and sandy stretches before plunging into the cool deep. So enmeshed is water in our lives (I can see it from where I write this), our swimwear drawers are as abundantly stocked as any other. We road test it, and we drive it hard: salt, chlorine, extreme UV, sand — rinse, repeat.
Stringy two-pieces, with ties, straps and metal clasps can take it, somewhat. The one-piece though, can outlast the season. Streamlined, sculpted, it is engineered for body movement. It entered the mainstream in the 1930s with the purpose of airing the skin, freeing limbs and unhampering movement. But functionality is a soft-sell; its real allure is in its design.
It was a red maillot that changed my mind. It was the last on a rack, hanging desultory on its own, in brilliant vermillion. It was sleek, easy to throw into a bag – no extras, just the fabric and stitches. It was a canny color match to C.J. Parker’s iconic Baywatch swimsuit but had the French slink of 1970s Guy Bourdin photographs for Vogue. After-work quick-changes became quicker. It also permitted an aperitif beachside, with the simple addition of shorts and sandals.
This gave rise to a scoop back one-piece with embroidered straps that perched at the very outer of the shoulders, then a cut-out version in ink, another LBS (little black swimsuit) with plaited straps. And forget dated, dower connotations — the one-piece’s true history has always been intertwined with empowered, discerning women.
One of the earliest celebrities to be photographed in the style was Jean Harlow. An early adopter, she was captured in the 1930s, poolside and carefree in her all-in-one. Brigitte Bardot, who became a bikini icon, was in fact all about the one-piece when she first started out. Sweet-heart neckline styles lent her wasp-waisted figure, simplicity and untroubled ease. Sporting one in Cannes in 1953, she swings from a post, wind piling her hair over her young shoulders. Then there’s Bo Derek in flesh-colored perfection for the 1979 movie 10, and Rudi Gernreich’s ‘monokini’ that scandalized as much as it made a stand against the unending sexualization of women’s bodies. Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested for wearing a one-piece in 1907 — that didn’t stop her.
Now we are happily beyond a time when a swim piece is judged on its prurience. Women have other things to contend with: ‘will I feel good in this?’ ‘Will it stay on when I move, and dive under the waves?’ Its structure — anchored on the body at multiple points, hugging the torso— means straps and edges don’t cling to any single spot, so it digs in less. For that same reason, it sculpts – no, celebrates – every figure. Cuts come in abundance. Zimmermann’s halter neck shows off shoulders, Matteau’s square neck offers more support for those who need it, while a Norma Kamali athletic rendition cuts high on the leg but covers more up top. Prints and color get more of a chance to show off, owing to the surface area. Solid and Striped offers a gingham version, like a sweet paean to Bardot, while Iris & Ink’s marigold halter neck captures a Slim Aarons glamour.
Hardy Amies said: “A man should look as if he's bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care and then forgotten all about them.” He was talking about Savile Row suiting, but this is a suit of a kind, with comfort and freedom a part of its DNA.