Fashion: How to avoid a bikini blunder

What style of swimwear will suit your body shape? Fashion editor Tamsin Blanchard found out.

SALES assistants who work in swimwear departments see it all. They see sights most of us would rather keep in the confines of our bedrooms or in the anonymity of a crowded stretch of the Costa del Sol.

Behind the fitting-room curtains women of all shapes and sizes squeeze their bodies into swimsuits and bikinis made often with only three idealised shapes in mind. And women are not generally shaped anything close to their own ideal, never mind that of a swimwear company.

A perfect cup size will not usually correlate to the hip measurements designed to go with it. And vice versa. Why bikinis are not sold in separate halves like knickers and bras, with proper underwear sizing, is a mystery. And as for selling one-pieces in measurements as vague as "S", "M" and "L", where is the sense in that?

No two women have identical body shapes, as Debenhams discovered when it recently commissioned an independent survey of British women's sizing. Forty per cent of the 2,500 women measured had different-sized upper and lower bodies. And only a third of those studied were wearing clothes that fitted them properly.

Not surprising, really, when you consider how limited the options on sizes are. When it comes to buying swimwear, the problem is magnified.

On The Independent's fashion team alone, there are figures that range in shape and size from what our stylist Sophia describes as her "world of plenty", with a cleavage for which many women would go under the surgeon's knife, to our writer Melanie's svelte, slim runner-bean figure for which those who hadn't opted for the splendid poitrine would submit themselves to the most excruciating liposuction.

As for me, I would class myself - without wanting to put myself through the rigours of a tape measure - as a "medium", with some excess baggage around the hips and middle that I would much rather leave at home. No matter what our shape, however, we are all in agreement that when it comes to exposing our bodies on a beach or next to a swimming-pool, we would all be grateful for a little bit of extra help.

The intrepid Sophia set out to trawl the swimwear departments of Harrods and Harvey Nichols, which between them have a good selection of the designer, the practical and the sporty. For women with big busts, her advice is to forget under-wired swimsuit and bikini tops unless they are the right size. "If the wires aren't in the right place, don't buy it," she says.

Instead, go for a vest and knicker set with hidden support. Marks & Spencer have ingenious Lycra vests with the modern-day equivalent of boning hidden in a layer inside. If you have the budget, however, invest in Liza Bruce, the swimwear designer who works in industrial-weight Lycra to keep the most lively of figures firmly under control, whether for swimming or playing volleyball on the beach. For women with long or short torsos, the vest and knicker option is also recommended, so you don't have the problem of a swimsuit being too tight or too loose at the crotch. You can wear it so that it looks like an all-in-one, adding length to the body, or with the top rolled up when you want to slap on the UV protection and catch some rays.

For those wanting a bit of support all over Calvin Klein's all-in-one with detachable halter strap has boning in the bust seams, a support panel at the tummy and some extra grip and uplift at the bottom.

For the great British pear shape, La Perla has just the thing: a one- shouldered bathing suit takes attention away from the offending hips. It is also relatively low cut on the leg so you don't have to go for an all-over body wax every time you go for a paddle.

Slim women who go straight up and down are not usually allowed to complain about their body shape. But Liza Bruce - again - has a swimsuit that will make the stringiest of string beans look as curvy as Marilyn Monroe - well, almost. A black panel in the middle covers the parts you don't want to expose to all and sundry, while mesh side- panels become invisible when wet and create the illusion that you go in and out in all the right places. Obvious, really.

And if your body doesn't correspond to any of these, do not despair. It's not your body shape that is the problem, it's the swimwear manufacturers.

They would argue that they do not have the resources to cover every body shape and size. But help is at hand. Margaret Ann, an underwear, corsetry and swimwear specialist in Warminster, offers a huge range of sizes from a size 30AA up to a 56E bra in both bikinis and one-piece suits.

The company also has a mastectomy service - as does Splash Out, a Worthing- based swimwear company that will even make a swimsuit to your specifications. To have an individual pattern made costs pounds 15-pounds 20, and a made-to-measure swimsuit costs from pounds 29 for a plain style and pounds 31 for a patterned one. Off the peg is also available and suits can be altered by designer Maureen Smyth for as little as pounds 1. Nothing, however small, tall, wide, lob-sided, round or wide, is considered a problem.

And that way, you don't have to suffer humiliation in a fluorescent-tube- lit department store cubicle. Happy holidays.

Margaret Ann, 01985 840520. Splash Out, 01903 230861.

Stocky

Multi-colour striped vest and matching bikini bottoms, pounds 125, by Missoni, from Harrods, Knightsbridge, London, SW1, enquiries 0171-839 4455.

String Bean

Black swimsuit with nude sides, pounds 170, by Liza Bruce, 9 Pont Street, London, W1, enquiries 0171-235 8423.

Big Bottom

Pictured below:

Pale green swimsuit, pounds 75, by Calvin Klein, 55 New Bond Street, London, W1, enquiries 0171-491 9696.

Big Bust

White vest and bikini bottoms pounds 180, both by Liza Bruce, as before.

Pear Shaped

Blue swimsuit, pounds 190, by La Perla, Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge, London, SW3, enquiries 0171

436 5864

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