Going to the beach and picking out a hot swimsuit are some of the greatest pleasures summer has to offer for approximately .00000001% of the general population.
Unless you’re, say, a hairless Justin Bieber, nothing is more torturous than buying a new swimsuit. You’ve got to find something that remains *on trend* and accentuates your butt *just right* but if you text one more anxious changing room selfie to your roommate, she will take her things and leave.
And while the pressure is on for everybody, it’s particularly acute for the queer, trans and non-binary community, whose swimwear options are woefully limited, though growing.
Slowly and I emphasize that with as many sarcastic eye rolls as the human eye can safely muster independent designers have stepped up to the plate with gender-inclusive designs. Stylists now offer tangible advice for people don’t fit the traditional gender binary (as well as those who do and just hate the word “tankini”).
There is, technically, a growing catalogue of gender-inclusive swimwear options out there, you’ve just got to know where to look.
When the beach is something to fear
More than any other genre of clothing, swimwear exposes people’s gender presentations for the public to catalogue and so often, shame.
Sonny Oram is the founder of Qwear, a style website for folks who don’t fit the heteronormative mold and face erasure. For Oram, the beach is a particularly vulnerable environment for this community.
“I think there’s a lot of anxiety around it, and that anxiety is grounded in reality,” Oram said. “When you’re trans, it’s hard to be stealth wearing swimwear . . . Even if you try and cover up, you’re drawing attention to yourself.”
Forget what you’ve heard about the fashion industry’s “gender-bending” most mainstream brands remain as anachronistic as ever. If you’re non-binary and like to wear feminine swimwear that isn’t particularly sexualized, you will have to Google harder than you’ve ever Googled before. If you’re a cis woman with hips who wants to be topless and wear boy shorts, good luck.
“Think of the double standards. People with male nipples can show their nipples, people with female nipple cannot,” Oram said. “In the ideal world, we wouldn’t have to ascribe to these laws.”
Brands are slowly catching up to culture but to find them, you have to look outside the mainstream.
A handful of brands are stepping up to the plate
When Sky Cubacub founded Rebirth Garments, they had a depressingly uphill mission: to provide affordable swimwear, daywear, and lingerie for people of all gender identities and body types, including folks with disabilities.
So Cubacub chose to reclaim one the most scorned materials on earth, Spandex, and turn it until a whole fashion line. Say what you will about spandex, but it can stretch to fit nearly every body, and it easily doubles as daywear and swimwear.
“It just allows for your body to change a little bit more,” Cubacub said. “I never have sizing on anything, people just send me their measurements. All that sizing stuff, it’s just constructed to make people feel bad.”
Their tailoring attempts to be specific to customer needs. For trans women and non-binary folks who want to tuck, Sky tailors unique underwear or designs an attachable skirt. They use Powernet, a compression material, for people who want to bind their chest or any other part of their bodies.
Most important, Sky uses color. Imagine an early ’90s fannypak turned into an entire clothing line.
For folks who like a slightly more muted palette, there’s Outplay, a “company without a gender.” The company provides fun swimwear basics without any gender assignations, and a range of areas of coverage.
Beefcake Swimwear, which just passed its Kickstarter fundraising goal, operates on the same gender-busting principles as Out Playwear with a few more twists. Beefcake suits are modeled after androgynous swimsuits from the 1920s, and come with optional bra shelfs for people who need ’em and people who just don’t.
Since the photos are always b/w, it surprised me how colorful swimsuits from the 1920s really are. Haven’t even launched and I’m dreaming about future designs for Beefcake swimsuits… . . . . . . . #onestepatatime #beefcake #tomboystyle #tomboy #tomboyswimwear #androgynousstyle #queerstyle #unisexswim #genderneutral #genderneutralfashion #vintageswimwear #1920sswimwear
On the slighter higher end of things, there’s Chromat, a body-positive, queer-inclusive brand that emerged in 2015 and provides swimwear for people with all kinds of gender presentations.
Chromat likes to imagine “structural experiments for the human body.” Designs are super colorful and architectural, and play with traditional gender norms: a zip-crop rashguard top paired with a more conventional bikini bottom, or the one-piece bathing suit that comes with a mockneck.
The brand isn’t cheap the contour rashguard suit retails for $238, for example but at least it provides some kind of model for mainstream fashion brands, who have a legacy they can build on when they finally wake up and decide to pay attention to this ridiculously neglected market.
So . . . what do you do if you’re broke?
When the average cost of women’s bathing suit is $100 or more, sometimes DIY is simply the best option. Angie Chuang, an NYC-based designer who designs genderfluid high-end streetwear, struggles to find swimwear and has learned how to just improvise.
“Most of the time Ill wear a bikini top and a muscle shirt or tank top over it and a pair of boarding shorts and call it a day,” Chuang said. “I would be thrilled if there were more androgynous selections. Its possible wed have to create new swimwear with different design lines and silhouettes.”
Oram agrees. For folks who prefer more traditionally masculine styles, Oram recommends boardshorts, or improvising a little with standard athletic gear:
“If you have any type of athletic shorts, those can just work as board shorts. Some folks who are packing may want to wear underwear. On top, you can wear a sports bra or a binder and a shirt over that. It’s not ideal but it works . . . Swimwear is a challenge because it’s not manufactured with non-binary queer and trans bodies in mind.”
For folks on the more feminine side of the spectrum, options are a little more limited. Mesh athletic gear easily doubles as a swimsuit. There are women’s versions of boardshorts for people who want a little more coverage.
Still, DIY can be tricky for the amateur and it’d be great if the industry finally stepped up and did it for us.
Brands: Are you listening?
For all the conversation about how contemporary fashion “gender bends” (what exactly does that word mean?), most gender-neutral fashion appears to live exclusively on the runway as a concept. It hasn’t trickled down to most mainstream retail stores, where people can make it a part of their everyday life.
It’s a safe, bland move for brands, who get the credit for being “inclusive,” without actually having to put into action.
“I guess they [mainstream brands] think it’s profitable. People make separate clothes for men and women, but so many of our clothes don’t need to be separate,” Oram said. “And I know so many consumers who dont want that. It’s not limited to the queer community! Brands need to take a broader range of bodies trans folks, people of all sizes into consideration.”
If the industry really wants to pay attention, they’ll have a hungry market. Nearly 150,000 American teens identify as transgender. Millennials are now the “gayest generation.” And there are thousands more who don’t identify anywhere on the LGBTQ spectrum, but still don’t feel comfortable in strictly binary bathing suits.
All anyone wants is the freedom to go to the beach and not feel horrible. It shouldn’t have to be this hard.