The fact that the one-piece is now viewed as the sexy-yet-modest alternative in swimwear is a bit ironic, considering wearing one used to be a crime. Decades before the loosening societal strictures of the post Summer of Love era made skin more accessible, a peek of flesh brought with it moral indignation and public ire. If you need proof that society has been policing women’s bodies for centuries, look to Annette Kellerman, the professional Australian swimmer, who in 1907 wore her one-piece, then dubbed a maillot, to a beach in Boston and was subsequently arrested for indecent exposure because, (gasp) her arms, legs, and neck were visible.
Before Kellerman, women wore bloomers, trousers, and full-length shifts made of fabrics like wool and cotton in order to conceal their physiques at the beach. Kellerman gave that notion the metaphorical middle finger when she decided to sport a tightly-fitted maillot, and soon, a new age followed, with swimwear that favored practicality and comfort over outdated notions of propriety. (General note: When you’re sewing lead weights into the hem of your swimming gown in order to prevent a bit of calf from showing, you know the patriarchy has too much power.)
Fast forward through a world war, a fabric shortage, and second-wave feminism and we were gifted the bikini – a two-piece swimsuit that bared the midriff and supposedly liberated women everywhere. As the bikini became popular, the one-piece disappeared into the backs of closets and the sad piles of sales bins. Women were persuaded to expose more of their bodies in the summer. How else could you get a good tan and a nice boy to notice you on the beach?
An entire industry was created around the bikini – think of all that waxing and baking salons now had to provide – and the media used the suit to push how-to guides for bikini-ready bodies. Through it all, the one-piece was still on our racks, hanging around like the proverbial Andrew Lincoln in Love, Actually, telling us how beautiful and loved we were on those days we’d consumed too many carbs or were too bloated to rock a two-piece.
And then, Hollywood stepped in.
Sure, there were a host of movies in the ’80s and ’90s that featured women in tiny string bikinis – sex sells obviously – but when Farrah Fawcett sold millions of posters in a red-hot one-piece, when Bo Derek frolicked in a nude maillot, and when Pamela Anderson saved lives and looked sexy as hell doing it in her iconic Baywatch uniform, the one-piece proved it had weathered the test of time.
All it needed was a bit of nostalgia and a fashion revolution to make its comeback.
The Baywatch Bump
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is responsible for many things: your obsession with men in spandex and love of fanny packs chief among them. He’s not responsible for the latest return of the one-piece – but his latest movie might have helped. The Baywatch reboot was a flop at the box-office, but the impact it had on the fashion world – or maybe the impact the fashion world had on it – is a different story.
The film’s costume designer, Dayna Pink, told USA Today she based her redesigns of the classic one-piece on trends she was seeing years earlier.
“The one-piece has really been a big trend,” Pink said. “I peeked again at the original show, did research on bathing suit trends and what was happening, and said ‘OK, so where is it going?'”
For the film, Pink chose to make the one-piece sportier, adding zipper detailing and thicker fabric that the women could run and move in. Sure, those designs were intended to help a group of insanely in-shape actresses do multiple slo-mo takes without popping out at the seams, but the appeal of the one-piece is the same, whether you’re busty or not, slim or sporting some curves.
Just ask Hunter McGrady, Sport’s Illustrated’s 2017 cover model and the magazine’s curviest muse to date. McGrady, a size 14, donned a painted on rainbow-printed one-piece inspired by Becca swimwear.
“I’m an advocate for less is more,” Hunter told Uproxx. “I love anything that shows off my body but if you want to cover up, there are so many options out there and there are some brands that have made it possible.”
Inclusion & The One-Piece
It’s not coincidental that the rise of the one-piece comes at a time when the fashion industry as a whole is making strides towards inclusivity. From big retailers like Target finally introducing plus-size lines to high-end designers like Christian Siriano, Marc Jacobs, and Zac Posen sending fuller figures down the runway, the new movement sweeping those fabric-covered hallowed halls is one geared towards body positivity, acceptance, comfort, and confidence.
From models like McGrady and Ashley Graham to artists like Beyonce and Taylor Swift, the maillot has quietly been collecting its own celebrity squad to rule the summer of 2017. California-based clothing company Sunny Co Clothing went viral earlier this year, blowing up our Instagram feeds with a red one-piece giveaway that had far-reaching effects on the internet. Memes were thrown, twitter threads were activated, hashtags were launched and the one-piece at the center of the chaos was suddenly the must-have suit of the summer.
Retail data company EDITED reports that styles of one-piece bathing suits offered online are up 20 percent from 2016 – styles of bikinis dropped nine percent. Fashion marketplace Lyst, has seen a surge of 232 percent in terms of searches for high cut one-piece suits. Online retailer Modcloth is offering 130 styles of the one-piece — a jump in inventory from 2016.
“Modcloth has always been a destination for one piece swimsuits especially in full size ranges for the last few years,” Lauren Godwin, Senior Buyer over Non-Apparel for Modcloth, told Uproxx. “But this year we have seen quite an uptake.”
A Shift In Style
In a world of fake news, fake tans, and flimsy cutouts, these numbers are pretty jaw-dropping. But the reasons for the resurgence are more complex than the return of one scantily-clad action comedy or the endorsement of a Kardashian or two.
The one-piece has been a beloved beachy companion to women of all shapes and sizes because of its universally flattering appeal. A good one-piece can hide problem areas and accentuate assets at the same time. It’s classic but modern, it suggests but doesn’t give everything away at first glance. And the suits you find these days aren’t the dowdy mom-jeans of the past. We’ve ditched skirts and ruching for metal, mesh, and crochet. High necklines have given way to deep, plunging V’s and low-scooped backs. Toned stomachs are nice, but it’s the side-boob in a one-piece that draws both envy and appreciation now.
In other words, one-pieces have graduated from functional frumpiness to sleek, slimming, curve-celebrating suits. They’ve become the little black dress of the beach and they’re allowing an entire community of women – those who once braved the sand in revealing scraps of fabric that neither supported nor did justice to their body’s natural shape – to feel confident and carefree while catching some rays.
“What they’re doing now is so refreshing and it’s giving everybody of every size the option to be sexy,” McGrady says. “We’ve tried to limit curvy girls from being sexy for so long and now it’s our time. Women in general, every size, every type, every ethnicity, we’re owning it.”