A guide to swimsuit styles—and how to find one you'll love
From teeny bikinis to long-sleeve one-pieces, find your fave look here.
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Unlike lounging on the beach, searching for a swimsuit in women’s sizes isn’t always relaxing. As if sizing guessing games and fluorescent fitting room lighting weren't bad enough, there’s also a sea (pun intended) of styles to choose from. From teeny triangle bikinis to long-sleeve one-pieces, stores and websites are swimming with thousands of options—and almost as many terms to describe them.
So how can you tell what each swimsuit name really means? To break down some of the most popular bathing suit styles and help swimwear shopping go more—ahem—swimmingly, we tapped two style experts, New York-based personal stylist Gayle Perry, and San Diego-based personal stylist Vanessa Valiente, about what you should know before buying.
Types of swimsuit tops
Whether you’re buying a set or separates, you’ll probably want to start at the, ahem, top in determining your preferred style. The main attributes to keep in mind are coverage and support.
Bandeau/Strapless: Because strapless styles leave your shoulders exposed, they’re great for minimizing tan lines—though you should be applying sunscreen for that anyway. Valiente says the term bandeau refers to styles that are “straight across” like a wide band, while other strapless styles can have sweetheart, cinched, or other “neckline” shapes.
Triangle: The triangle top, a classic bikini style, features two triangular pieces of fabric often connected with string ties behind the back and halter-style around the neck. While the design is traditionally teeny, there are several ways to keep your suit secure–and to cover up a little more if you’re not looking for that much exposure. Perry recommends choosing a style that has “an elastic on the bottom that keeps [it] more in place” and pairing with a high-waisted bottom if you’re looking for additional coverage.
Halter: Perhaps one of the most common styles, halter tops have straps that tie around the neck, and can be either supportive or a pain in the neck, depending on the wideness of the strap and the weight of the bust it's holding up.
Racerback or crossback: Racerbacks and crossbacks have straps down the back in the shape of an “X,” offering extra bust support and less chance of a strap slipping off. They’re favored by competitive swimmers as well as those with larger busts.
Bra top/scoop: Scoop tops have a rounded neckline, but bra-style tops—which have a vertical strap over each shoulder—can have any number of neckline shapes. They're sometimes sold with an underwire, mimicking the coverage and support of a bra.
Tankini: Tankinis combine the coverage of a tank top with the material of a bikini (hence the name). Because their length typically meets the top of the bikini bottoms, tankinis provide the coverage of a one-piece with the functionality of a two-piece—people who are different sizes up top versus bottom can get a better “one-piece” fit with a tankini.
Rash guard: Rash guards were originally designed to protect surfers' skin from board rash, or chafing, where their skin rubs against the board. But while the shirt-like garment is made for function, it can also be fashionable. “[Rash guards are] fun to wear and you're covered up,” Perry says of the style, adding that you can pair it with a boy short or high-waisted bikini bottom and “even knot the rash guard at the waist to give it some interest.”
Types of swimsuit bottoms
The bottom half of a bathing suit is defined by two attributes: rise—or where its top edge sits in relation to your waistline—and coverage.
Standard bikini: This style looks like a typical pair of panties, though may be lower or higher rise and offer more or less coverage in the rear. It may have sides that tie with strings, although Valiente recommends styles with a wider band to avoid discomfort from the string against the skin.
Boyshorts: Boyshorts cover the backside fully and can even come down onto the legs a little. Because the sides are much wider than a string bikini, Valiente says, boyshorts could provide extra comfort “because there's enough fabric that there's often not much cutting in.”
High-waisted: High-waisted bottoms provide more coverage around the waistline, as they can come up to or over your belly button. “I think there's a return right now to… the old Hollywood glamor,” Perry says of the retro look, once favored by ‘50s celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot. “A lot of them are timeless and they make you feel really good.”
Cheeky: Cheeky bikini bottoms expose more skin at the rear than a standard bikini bottom, but not as much as a thong. When looking for a quality cheeky bikini bottom, Valiente recommends searching for styles with an elastic down the back, sometimes referred to as ruching. “When you have elastic there, it prevents the bottom from stretching out and sagging,” she says, adding that the special stitching helps your bathing suit last longer regardless of price.
Deep V: Picture Pamela Anderson in Baywatch. Deep-V bathing suit bottoms sit “super high up on the hip bones,” and are “super high cut” on the leg, says Valiente.
Thong: Thongs are the most barely-there of the bottoms—picture thong underwear but as swimwear. Because they feature less fabric than a standard bikini bottom and even cheeky ones, make sure you’re extra-careful slathering on the sunscreen to avoid extra-uncomfortable burns.
Types of one-pieces
One-pieces are often considered more demure, because typically the midsection is covered. That’s not always the case, though, as some of these styles will show you.
Traditional one-piece or racerback: Like bikini tops, one-pieces are available with a variety of strap options. The classic style has two straps, which can be parallel or cross in an "X" shape on the back, while racerback styles are favored by swimmers and other water sport enthusiasts for their secure fit.
Strapless one-shoulder, or off-the-shoulder: The strapless one-piece style is becoming more popular as of late, Valiente says, and provides a classic one-piece's coverage without the strap tan lines. A one-shoulder suit has a single strap that can help hold it up, but also adds visual interest with its asymmetry. Off-the-shoulder styles offer a feminine look with typically flouncy ruffles.
Monokini: Who says one-pieces have to be completely covered up? After falling out of fashion for a while, the 80s-esque monokini swimsuit is back. Though technically a one-piece, the style shows more skin as it features large cutouts on the sides. “I highly recommend cutouts for all body types,” says Perry. Cutouts draw attention where the fabric is—and isn't—to create flattering visual contours.
V-neck/Plunge: If cutouts aren't your style but you're looking for something a little sexier in your one-piece, consider a V-neck or plunging neckline. To take the style to the beach and beyond, Perry recommends pairing a V-neck one piece with “a short white skirt” or trying a one with a poof sleeve for a “flirty and feminine” look.
How can you decide what style suit to wear?
When picking a style, it’s important to find a secure, supportive design. “Feeling supported in a bathing suit even if it's a teeny tiny thing just feels great," says Perry. "It's like… a great pair of jeans.” Just like jeans, only you can decide what fit you feel best in. For instance, if you’re looking for a suit that lifts the bust, Valiente suggests trying a plunge design. On the other hand, if you’re searching for more coverage and support, a racerback design might be a better option.
And while trying on suits can be a bit intimidating, don’t forget to have fun with it. “Think about the hat you're going to wear and the sunglasses because it's the whole moment, and then it becomes [even more] fun,” says Perry.
How can you tell if a swimsuit is good quality?
Regardless of which swimwear suits your fancy, there are a few ways to judge its quality and durability. “It's not [necessarily] about the fabric because everyone's using the same nylon, polyester, [and so on],” says Valiente. However, a higher “percentage of elastic” in the fabric blend, in the forms of spandex or elastane, is also often a good sign, Perry says. Those stretchy fibers literally bounce back better from wear and tear to keep the suit’s shape longer, and they hold you in more securely.
More importantly, you’ll want to look at “how the suit is put together,” Valiente says. If a style is double-lined, it’s likely to last longer. Look for reinforced stitching around leg holes and where straps are attached, too, as those are points that have to handle a lot of tension.
Additionally, while a bigger price tag doesn’t always mean better quality, swimsuits could be an exception. “With bikinis, if it's under $75 it's not going to last as long, period,” says Valiente, who adds that once you cross the $100 mark there won't be much of a difference in quality.
That isn't to say you shouldn't bag a cheapie each season in a trendy style, as you may not want to wear it next year anyway.
How many swimsuits should you own?
Because swimwear can be more “utilitarian” like workout wear, as Valiente says, there’s no need to buy new suits each season to fit the latest trends. However, if you opt to try suits with different shapes, straps, and adornments, don’t forget about tan lines should you miss a spot when applying sunscreen. “I like to mix it up with the tan lines,” said Valiente, as wearing the same suit each time will give you “a very strong tan line” if you forget to reapply sunscreen properly.
Perry compares the right swimsuit to investing in "a really good bra" that fits perfectly. “You have a much better day if that’s your foundation,” she says, adding that she recommends first “going and trying on different styles” and asking yourself whether a suit is “something that makes [you] feel amazing [in],” she says. “That confidence is everything and then it translates into every other area of [your life].”
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.