The buzz at the beach this summer is more about covering up than baring all.
Sure, some swimsuits are still sexy and show plenty of skin, but even those suits are likely to be paired with sportswear-inspired cover-ups that take wearers from the water to the snack bar -- and maybe even the grocery store.
Lands' End recently launched its Beach Living Collection, which Tanya Thorson, the company's women's swimwear merchant, describes as "swimwear beyond the beach."
"You can put it on in the morning and wear it until the end of the day," she says. "Swimwear hasn't kept up with busy women's lifestyles; this is an answer for when you have to multitask, or are going to get ice cream."
At J.C. Penney, John Tighe, divisional merchandise manager for casual and swimwear, says he's heard the trend called "meet-and-greet swimwear," so you can jump up from the pool or backyard chaise to answer the doorbell without making a pit stop to change.
This doesn't mean, though, that swimwear has become dowdy or stale. Instead, look for bright colors and prints, flattering fabrics and athletic touches to make up for the more conservative style. Among the most popular trends are pink-brown or turquoise blue-brown print combinations, stripes and polka-dots, and the skirted bottom and board skirt. There also are a lot of halter tops and collar necks that resemble sportswear shirts.
"People want to be dressed head to toe when they go to beach now. ... It's much more about the fashion than about showing skin," says Thorson, who wonders if women might be embracing the covered-up look because they're heeding medical advice to avoid too much sun exposure.
"We're offering a coordinated look, and there's an infusion of the sportswear element into swimwear," says Roger Taylor, J.C. Penney's swimwear and activewear buyer.
Most of the elements of this look always have been in stores -- flip-flops, tote bags, towels, cover-ups -- but retailers are displaying them together, in coordinated color palettes, to suggest complete swim outfits, he explains.
The influence and acceptance by the public of casual chic collections, such as Juicy Couture, can't be ignored as trendy terry cloth pants and zip-front jackets become the preferred attire for the mall and movie theater.
"The old cover-ups were either old T-shirts or maybe a pareo," says Taylor, but now the cover-up is designed in conjunction with swimsuits so they'll complement each other.
"This is lifestyle merchandising. A solution for end use," he adds.
Thorson also notes advances in fabric technology that make the swimsuits more flexible and flattering -- important factors to women who want to feel confident walking on the beach and socializing with friends.
She recommends Tricot fabric, which stretches four ways -- up, down, left and right -- instead of Rochelle, which either stretches horizontally or vertically but not both.
New "control" fabrics that blend Lycra and Modulus works like a rubber band, expanding and retracting when needed, Thorson explains, and when those fabrics are used in a ruched or gathered style, the result is particularly favorable.
Thorson also says the "don't-wear-horozontal-stripe rule" is wrong. "A horizontal stripe can give the illusion of a waistline. The contrast of the lines helps keep your eye wandering so you're not focusing on any one body part," she says.
The industry also has moved away from one-piece suits or prepackaged sets in favor of separates so shoppers can choose different sizes and styles to best match their figures, Thorson says.
"This is a very sensitive purchase. We want to give her as many options as we can."