Shopping for swimwear is the ultimate showdown—you versus the pitiless three-way mirror, scary lighting, a pile of unforgiving rayon and Lycra. Robin Monheit turned to style reporter Charla Krupp, the author of How Not to Look Old, for a few survival strategies.
O:Why is swimsuit shopping so difficult? Is there any way to make it better? Charla: You have to realize that this is the most tortuous shopping of all. Nothing compares. Shave or wax your legs and bikini line before you go. You may be the only one looking, but you want to do everything possible to feel good. And, self-tan. Everybody looks better in a swimsuit with a little color.
O: Is there one fail-safe style that flatters everyone? Charla: A V-neck one-piece with shirring or draping can look terrific on a lot of women. Miraclesuit makes several with a brooch at the cleavage point that's the perfect distraction from areas you might be self-conscious about—your eye goes right there.
O: What if you're bigger on top and uncomfortable drawing attention to that area? Charla: Fit the bust first. Find a suit that solves your problem spot, and you can worry about everything else later. Also, if you're big-busted, you want a wide strap. Skinny, little nothing strings are going to cut into your skin and be painful.
O: Everyone has bought the wrong suit at some point—have you? Charla: Oh my god! I'm a repeat offender in buying things on sale that I can't return. Every summer, I go to a giant yard sale. They have supercheap swimsuits from fabulous designers, but no dressing rooms. Once, I bought a zebra-print suit without realizing the stripes would make rings around my stomach. Last year, I bought a nice voluptuous V-neck, but it was way too deep. Every time I think, "But it's on sale!"
O: Are there certain styles you should never even take into the dressing room? Charla: Stay away from any suit with a skirt attached, the classic old lady look. In reality, that extra fabric always makes you look bigger, and the additional seam is unflattering. If you want to wear that style, get a swim dress.
O: What's the difference? Charla: A swim dress is more A-line; it's a traditional swimsuit that flares just above the hips and gives the appearance of a dress. I love it as an alternative for women who hate to show too much flesh.
O: What else can women do to avoid looking old at the beach? Charla: The tankini is a disaster for anyone over 40. A lot of people say, "Oh the tank, that's so easy, right?" Well, most of them don't have bra support. You also run into a problem with "middle management"—the tops are always flapping up, baring midriff when you wanted to hide it. Just buy a one-piece shaper suit. You will be so much better off. Consider going to a specialty store. Bra stores that sell swimwear are an excellent place to start. You'll find salespeople trained in how to fit
O: You keep mentioning shapewear. Why does fabric make a difference? Charla: The best swimsuits now can take almost an inch off your body because the high-tech fabric holds you in and retains its shape after many wearings. As you get older, you need the construction, you need the boning, you need the bra, and you need the padding. If you're over 40 and you find all that in one suit, you're set for the season.
O: One suit! Really? What color should it be? Charla: You can't go wrong in a dark jewel tone: burgundy, navy, brown, and absolutely nothing beats black. The Little Black Suit is the trump card.
O: What new trends are you excited about? Charla: We've seen a lot of the one-shoulder dress in 2009—Michelle Obama, Kate Winslet—and I think the one-shoulder swimsuit is going to be the trend of the summer. It's a snappy way to modernize your look and will stay up a whole lot better than strapless suits.
O: Are there any other mistakes you see at the beach? Charla: A lot of women blow it with the coverup. You can't just throw on a T-shirt. If you want to look chic and sophisticated, think about a whole look at the store, everything down to shoes and a hat.
Buyer Beware! Never say never, but here a few styles Charla says are hard for most women to pull off.
Boy Shorts If you want to wear a boy short, you've got to have a boy body without curves. As women get older, Charla says, they should show a little cheek in your rear end and have a nice, tight fit. A suit that covers the entire rear end tends to be baggy and sit very low on the thigh—usually accentuating the wrong place.
Skimpy Bikinis At a certain age, you just have to say goodbye to the teeny-bopper bikinis. If you have an amazing body like Demi Moore or Madonna (and more power to you, if you do!), you can get away with one.
Cutouts You are asking for trouble. If you're short, the cutouts are going to hit you in an awkward place. And who needs that kind of tan?
Horizontal Stripes If you want to look your thinnest, stay away from anything that cuts across your body. This includes zebra stripes, tiger stripes, army stripes...no matter how cute and trendy, they're unflattering.
Metallics Gold and silver glisten in magazines, but when they catch real-life sunlight on your body, every bulge shows.
Braless Suits without built-in support will make you pop out of the bottom and/or the sides.
White Nearly impossible to look good in and a poolside embarrassment waiting to happen. Why risk it?