But what do you buy if you are a regular swimmer at your local pool, or simply want a costume that won't embarrass you by falling apart if you do anything more strenuous than stretch out on the sand?
We asked retailers each to contribute a swimming costume which would fulfil the twin criteria of being good to look at while still being suitable for some serious swimming. Our testing team consisted of a dedicated amateur who trains every day for competition, and two enthusiastic, if less single-minded, swimmers.
Kate Bell, member of the Beckenham swimming club; Anna Chase, journalist; Maria Tuck, computing director.
The panel gave each costume marks for comfort, looks, suitability for serious swimming and value for money. The marks were added up and converted into a star rating.
**** MARKS & SPENCER SPORTS MESH SWIMSUIT pounds 20, 84 per cent polyester / 16 per cent Lycra, black only, sizes 8-16 from selected stores nationwide
This swimming costume would wear well either on the beach or training in the pool. It scored well all round, and plain black proved to be a popular choice. 'I didn't expect this to be a serious suit, but in fact it came close to the Speedo quality for swimming,' Maria Tuck said. 'The appearance is good, the potentially worrying mesh side-panels are not see-through as I feared.' Kate Bell said: 'This costume could be worn for serious swimming. I thought it looked good on. Lightweight fabric made it comfortable to wear and the price was reasonable.'
***TRIUMPH CARLA pounds 21, nylon / elastane in pink, jade, royal blue, black, sizes 32-40in. For stockists, tel: 0793 722200
This has a sporty design, with crossed back and a high neck. The panel thought it could be used to plough up and down the pool, and also looked good. But they weren't too keen on the texture of the fabric, which was described as 'rubbery' and 'too thick and heavy'. 'It was a snug fit and I certainly felt contained. I particularly liked the cross-back design which left my shoulders unrestricted and made the arm strokes freer,' said Anna Chase.
*BRITISH HOME STORES SPORTS SWIMSUIT pounds 16.99, nylon / elastane, blue/green only, sizes 8-18
This suit's vivid colours looked sporty, but it was the least suited to serious swimming. Our panel wasn't too keen on the look. 'The 'Bond girl' zip was very off-putting and the lining made the suit heavy,' said Maria Tuck. 'Lack of a cross back makes suits like this feel as if they may slip off, although I thrashed about with butterfly and it seemed secure.' Kate Bell would not use this suit for training: 'It's definitely a holiday costume.' Anna Chase said: 'My size 16 was designed for a bosomless figure; the costume acted as something of a corset. Not unduly uncomfortable to swim in, though.'
***SLIX PLISSE 3 pounds 36.25, nylon / elastane, rust, mid-blue, black, sizes 10-18. For stockists, tel: 081-450 3066
This low-backed suit has seams up the front, which are intended to flatter the figure. The panel thought it was comfortable and liked its style, but thought it was best suited for posing on the beach. 'Very comfortable fit, flattering cut and attractive colour. I found the texture a little too synthetic. This one you'd buy for looks rather than lane lapping,' said Anna Chase. 'Nicest looking material and shape. Low backs are certainly more attractive, though not good for swimming. However, the material was heavy and somewhat see-through when wet. Absolutely ridiculous price,' said Maria Tuck.
**** SPEEDO ELECTRIC PERFORMANCE pounds 22.99 polyamide / elastane, 4 colourways, sizes 28-42in. Major stockists: Lillywhites, First Sport, JJB Sports, Cobra Sports, Harrods, John Lewis Partnership
The best on comfort and the most suitable for swimming, this was also one of the most popular costumes for its style. The back gives the impression of being almost entirely straps - it has a cross-back with a very large diamond-shaped gap below. 'Came with detailed care instructions. I could have done with some 'How to put it on' instructions, too. The first time, I ended up with my arms in a kind of straitjacket,' said Anna Chase. Kate Bell and Maria Tuck were already confirmed Speedo fans. 'This test confirms all my prejudices. The Speedo fitted smoothly and tightly, and felt very light. You can forget all about it when swimming. I don't particularly like the colours, but it's a small price to pay. This was the winner for me,' said Maria Tuck. 'Speedo has got it right again,' said Kate Bell.
**NEXT BLUE DENIM LOOK SWIMSUIT pounds 22.99, cotton/polyester/Lycra, sizes 10-16
Anna Chase and Kate Bell found this low-backed costume with its soft material very comfortable. 'It felt like I had nothing on,' said Anna Chase. 'It fits like a second skin. It's also easy to put on and take off. The denim look is a bit naff, but I could live with it for the comfort. I particularly liked the shaped cups; it meant I wasn't held together by sheer force of elastic.' But Maria Tuck disagreed: 'Material kept riding up one side of my bottom. The Next logo tag had a sharp edge that scratched my arm. The suit seemed to fill with water. I couldn't face more than two lengths in it.' Kate Bell's verdict: 'I wouldn't use it for serious swimming, but I'd definitely take it on holiday'.
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