Because You Can: Retro Beach Bunny

Esther Williams was a badass babe, and so are you.

I’m obsessed with retro-style swimsuits, which is somewhat ironic, since this B wouldn’t know how to doggy paddle if you threw me into a kiddie pool. In fact, I’d probably panic for fear of drowning, which is the leftover trauma from childhood ear surgeries that prevented me from even being able to put my head underwater, let alone learn how to swim. But that didn’t stop me from admiring the angels of las aguas, like swimmer and actress Esther Williams or the ladies in this hypnotizingly beautiful Busby Berkeley scene from the 1933 movie Footlight Parade. In middle school, my friends and I got really into beach-party movies, a corny collection of surf films from the 1960s, the most famous of which starred Annette Funicello. So even though I couldn’t be a little mermaid myself, there was one thing that I always wanted: a fly-ass, vintage-style swimsuit.

Esther Williams and Annette Funicello

L to R: Esther Williams and Annette Funicello.

Vintage 50s swimsuits

Ladies in the ’50s rocking their awesome swimsuits (source unknown).

For six or seven years, I’ve searched for these sweet silhouettes: fetching one-pieces with ruched fabric and semi-corseted bodices, and crop tops with high-waisted bikini bottoms. They’re super flattering on everyone, and IMHO, more sophisticated than the standard one-piece/string bikini. Finding an actual vintage bathing suit is the real score, but it’s pretty tough, unless you got that magic thrifting touch or access to some gems in your memaw’s closet. Etsy and eBay are a good place to start. I found this ’60s floral number and this awesome gingham two-piece, but of course it’s hard to get the right size, or to know how it fits without trying it on, which is why I’m psyched to see so many clothing companies doing throwbacks to the style. (Also nice? Not wearing a pre-owned suit, which is not different enough from “vintage underwear,” amirite?) Every year since my search began, I’ve seen more and more options, so these days you have plenty to choose from.

First, I have to begin with the Million-Dollar Mermaid herself, Ms. Esther Williams. The timing of this post is eerie and sad: Esther died today at the age of 91. She was an amazing competitive swimmer who turned to acting when World War II led to the cancellation of the 1940 Olympics, where she’d hoped to compete. (Do yourself a favor and get in the mood for summer by renting Bathing Beauty or Dangerous When Wet. Hey, gurl.) Best of all, Esther started a swim line in the ’90s, and you gotta love her raison d’être: “I put you in a suit that contains you and you will swim in. I don’t want you to be in two Dixie cups and a fish line.” Check out some of her pieces below:

Clockwise from top left:

Clockwise from top left: Fruitful Endeavor, $90, ModCloth; Beach Blanket Bingo, $90, ModCloth; blue velvet one-piece, $90, ModCloth; leopard-print two-piece, $90, ModCloth.

Nautical-themed fashion is my absolute favorite. It’s just a classic color palette, and never is sailor chic more appropriate than when it comes to swimwear. This tankini is perfect: It looks like a one-piece, but it’s got the comfort of separates, and comes in all sizes. And I love the anchor buttons on this one. (Incidentally, Fables by Barrie is a cool company. They make everything in San Diego, CA, so it’s sweatshop-free.) And Lolita Girl’s suits are adorable. If you’re doing red, white, and blue, you might as well go all in and get the hat, too.

Left to right:

L to R: Sailor Tankini, $118, Fables by Barrie; Hazel swimsuit, $126, Fables by Barrie.

Left to right:

L to R: Sailor Sue, $98, Lolita Girl; Anchors Aweigh, $110, Lolita Girl.

For those of you who don’t want to swim (or can’t, like moi), you can have more fun with your beach attire by going for a playsuit, which are pinup-style rompers. This one, with the red bow and the peek-a-boo front, is kind of the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s perfect for poolside BBQs, or for changing into at the end of the day, when you somehow have an uncomfortable amount of sand downtown.

Clockwise from top left:

Clockwise from top left: Peach Pie, $90, Vintage Suits by Mary; pink polka-dot playsuit, $109, Vintage Suits by Mary; red polka-dot playsuit, $109, Vintage Suits by Mary ; Peek-a-Boo, $98, Vintage Suits by Mary.

Everything here is a little pricey, because naturally everything that looks old needs to be as expensive as new, but never fret. If you don’t want to throw your dollahs around that much, Target has a good selection of retro suits, too.

Clockwise from top left:

Clockwise from top left: Merona one-piece, $32, Target; red bathing suit, $27, Target; black Merona one-piece, $35, Target; Merona Vamp one-piece, $45, Target.

Also, if you’re not looking to wade too far into the past, check out this awesome pink suit, designed by our very own Gabi Gregg. It features the flattering cut of the high-waisted bottom and halter top without seeming like something li’l Sally Draper would wear. Whatever you decide to get, pick up some cat-eye sunglasses and a pretty flower clip to match, and you’ll be playing beach-blanket bingo in no time! ♦


  • Sophie ❤ June 6th, 2013 7:04 PM

    OMG! These swim suits are ADORABLE! I have to get the Anchors Aweigh one! (This is so why I read Rookie every single day, and am always the first to read the posts!)

    -Sophie ;)

  • alienbabe June 6th, 2013 7:05 PM

    retro swimsuits are probably the best thing that’s ever happened!

  • Tyknos93 June 6th, 2013 7:07 PM

    Retro suits are my favorite! I’m so glad they’re becoming popular (ie. more accessible) . I have gone swimming in oversized trunks and a tank tops like every year . This year I finally want to take the plunge (pun all the way intended) and I’ve been looking for cute suits to sashay around in! Thanks for this article.

  • momobaby June 6th, 2013 7:23 PM

    I love retro suits! They’re always so adorable and polka dotty, and give literally everyone the curves of Marilyn Monroe (super plus)

  • Sharon June 6th, 2013 7:32 PM

    dang i wish i had that CASH FLOW i can barely afford target blah

  • MaddieMae June 6th, 2013 7:56 PM

    I LOVE vintage bathing suits! And it’s a really awesome coincidence that you guys did this article, because sadly, I just found out that Esther Williams died. :(

  • WitchesRave June 6th, 2013 8:05 PM

    i love how these swimsuits asentuate your waist <3

  • eremiomania June 6th, 2013 8:05 PM

    American Apparel has some really cool high waisted two piece suits with cool prints. I especially love their fruit pieces:

    • ArmyOfRabbits June 7th, 2013 1:35 AM

      Wow, thanks! They’re inexpensive too, wasn’t expecting that.

  • sophiethewitch June 6th, 2013 8:08 PM

    SOMEBODY tell me where I can find a swimsuit like the one Wednesday Addams wears (I think in Addams family values)! I’ve been scouring the Internets and I can’t find one.

    • Katherine June 6th, 2013 8:29 PM

      I love that lake scene! It would be great to find a suit like that.

  • Aurora June 6th, 2013 9:08 PM

    Next time I go to Target, I’m SO picking up one of those hot little numbers. I can’t even with this article. This is the best style.

  • MaggietheCat June 7th, 2013 1:45 AM

    I have one of those Esther Williams suits and it’s fabulous. Really high quality and with sturdy bosom support. I found it on sale online, so it was less expensive than the similar ones shown. A good investment, and the style is unmatched.

  • Pearl June 7th, 2013 7:32 AM

    I wish we had more retro swimsuits. Modcloth’s shipping charges are way too high & Asos’ bikinis are super pricey. Sigh.

  • Tara A. June 7th, 2013 8:55 AM

    Retro swimsuits are the coolest! Actually, most things retro are just awesomesauce.

  • Wen Yi June 7th, 2013 9:14 AM

    I feel really lame but how the hell do you swim in velvet? Or those little chiffon-like skirts? I guess those ‘swimsuits’ are more for lounging around the beach/poolside than actual getting in the water, then? :-(

  • neon_rattail June 7th, 2013 12:17 PM

    Ever since I was little I loved and wanted retro style bathing suits – they’re just so much cooler! I’ve been so glad to see them getting more popular each year. Now all of mine are retro style :)

  • Rosa-Bones June 7th, 2013 1:17 PM

    Ouhhh! I love them, too!!!! They are just so pretty. Bought a 50´s Bikini on ebay last year and I am still in love with it!

  • elliecp June 7th, 2013 2:30 PM

    I just LOVE vintage swimsuits! They suit my figure so much more than the more modern designs, and they’re just so cute…I’m a sucker for any floral or polka dot ones ^_^

  • FiveDimesForNineLives June 7th, 2013 3:56 PM

    These are so cute. I was thinking about mixing my modern swim top with a vintage top.

  • sissiLOL June 8th, 2013 2:41 AM

    I will have somthing like this! <3 (a heart)

  • Imogen-Rose June 11th, 2013 10:21 PM

    I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned this yet, but Pin Up Girl clothing also has some really adorable vintage-style suits <3

  • Demmy June 12th, 2013 12:35 PM

    I love this article! Retro suits are so beautiful and classy. Besides they’re way more decent than string bikinis and whatnot. Beautiful pictures. The red Target suit is my favorite. x

  • thebrownette July 11th, 2013 2:57 PM

    You can also buy Ester’s suits on her own website-there’re alot more colors!