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Discount Swimwear and the Endless Summer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Summer is as much a state of mind as a time of the calendar. Interest in swimsuits both cheap and expensive, including discount swimwear for both men and women, starts long before the first day of summer. Just ask the staff of your local gym about the panicked, pre-warm weather flurry of new customers suddenly aware that their not quite movie-star quality physiques may soon be exposed poolside. Retail and wholesale proprietors know that summer is coming from the worried looks of customers seeking discounts on suits that are flattering as possible or that at least hide their bulk as much as feasible.

Swimwear is also, of course, a fascinating cultural barometer that has changed radically over the centuries. Since ordinary clothing and swimming pretty obviously don't go together, for centuries, it was an activity usually done naked if done at all and was, therefore, often considered indecent, especially for women. However, as increased travel and standards of living increased during the industrial era, so did interest in seaside vacations. Clothes designers and marketers groped for ways to combine swimming with Victorian and Edwardian-era standards of morality. That meant bathing costumes for women that enabled aquatic movement to some degree, but were anything but hydrodynamic.

Still, even those very modest suits were deemed too revealing for the male gaze. In some areas, elaborate "swimming machines" tried to create a visual block in the ocean water to make it impossible for men to catch even the briefest glimpse of a bathing beauty. For its part, male swimwear was more formfitting but usually covered the torso.

All that began to change with the more liberated attitude that spread like wildfire in America and Europe of the 1920s and beyond. Costumes became more form-fitting and exposed gradually more skin. Male toplessness while swimming or sunbathing became almost universally accepted and uncontroversial, while female bathing costumes gradually shrunk -- flashes of midriff began to appear on beaches. Finally, World War II came along and ended with a both a literal atom bomb and a metaphoric explosion. More flesh than ever was exposed with the arrival of the postwar bikini -- named for the Polynesian islands where the A-bomb was first tested. The style was that explosive. It exposed more female flesh than ever before and grew ever more revealing.

The increasingly minimal swimsuit became a staple in the public consciousness in the fifties and sixties, with songs like "Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" and countless sixties B-movies with titles like "The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini" and "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine." Among the most iconic cinematic images in film history remains the sight of bikini clad Ursula Andress rising from the water like a half-naked goddess in "Dr. No," the first James Bond movie released in 1962. Nevertheless, for all the hubbub that thongs and string bikinis create to this day, reality dictates that most women, particularly those over thirty or forty, still prefer the far more modest one-piece swimsuit.

Men's suits also evolved, ironically growing both more revealing and less so. The "Speedo" style favored by competitive swimmers become more popular in the seventies, eighties and beyond, especially in Europe. At the same time, as our nation become chunkier, most men gravitated from the more form-fitting swim trunks popular in the sixties and seventies towards the long and baggy boardshorts worn by surfers and skateboarders in places like Hawaii and California. There are also more outre styles for men, including the buttock-revealing mankini spoofed and supposedly to some degree popularized by the edgy comedian Sacha Baron Cohen in the 2006 movie, "Borat." (We're lucky enough not to have personally seen any.)

Because social conventions allows for more skin to be exposed around pools or at the beach than just about anywhere else, swimwear will likely always remain one of the more interesting and adventurous realms of the world of fashion. Moreover, as long as it continues to get hot during the summer, discount swimwear for men and women will remain an item that discount retailers will need to buy in bulk to be ready for the warmer times of the year when anxious consumers start looking for cheap swimsuits.