Let’s be honest, there’s an undeniable “ick” factor around buying swimwear secondhand. Even the most experienced shoppers have a tendency to shy away from investing in pre-loved bathing suits and it has everything to do with cleanliness, or the lack thereof. Now, thanks to the booming secondhand market and continued popularity of Y2K-inspired, logo-heavy fashion trends, having an archival, insignia-stamped bikini in your warm-weather wardrobe seems like an easy choice.
Like any other vintage and secondhand category, it’s almost impossible to know the full ownership history of an item. But with swimwear (and lingerie) specifically, there are other factors that come into play that cause shoppers to be a little hesitant. From the oils your skin produces when you sweat to the second-skin-like silhouettes that cling to the body, sellers have to be especially cautious.
Kathryn Margaret Rose, the founder of vintage swimwear boutique Somebody’s Baby (named after the classic ’80s song by Jackson Browne), recalls running into her fair share of sourcing nightmares — including a suit covered in blood splatter. But her biggest piece of advice for shoppers is to buy from a seller that you trust. “Personally, I meticulously inspect each swimsuit I source for quality and cleanliness, make any necessary repairs, then I wash and disinfect them before listing,” she tells NYLON of her thorough resale process, which involves using Lysol Laundry Sanitizer, an antibacterial laundry additive. “Of course, the price when buying from a vintage seller is a bit higher than a thrift store or estate sale, but at least then you know you’re getting something clean and in great condition — and you don’t have to do any dirty work.”
As to how she got into the vintage swimwear game, Rose cites her beachy roots and innate love for secondhand shopping as the main driving forces. “I’ve always been a beach girl, so I have more swimsuits than any rational person should own,” she recalls. “I originally just started picking up vintage bikinis for myself when I would thrift or shop on resale sites. I started getting a lot of ‘where did you find that?!’ comments from friends, so I figured I could probably sell a few of my finds on my Instagram and Depop. The response was positive, so I decided to invest a little money into sourcing and start a proper shop, inspired by the iconic babes I grew up idolizing: Pam Anderson, Naomi Campbell, Cher, Cindy Crawford, and the girl-next-door love interests from old teen movies.”
Rose believes, like all fashion categories, that swimwear has also been impacted by the breakneck speed of trend cycles due to fast fashion. “Lower quality, mass-produced bikinis have become the norm, which, of course, creates more waste and raises concerns about ethical production,” she notes. And while sustainability can be a major reason to shop secondhand, there’s also the possibility of micro-trend fatigue, as well as a desire to invest in unique fashion items instead.
“Most current swimwear styles are imitations of vintage cuts anyway,” says Rose, “so why not go straight to the source?”
But before fully committing to shopping for vintage swimwear, there are a few things you should consider to ensure you’re proceeding safely. Read on for our best expert tips.
Shopping For Vintage Swimwear Tip No. 1: Learn All About The Item
Similar to shopping for any other secondhand category, the more information you have on the condition and other specifics of an item, the better the outcome will likely be. As Rose points out, vintage swimwear is almost always non-refundable, so getting the full rundown of a product helps prevent any surprises. Also, when shopping online, don’t be afraid to ask the seller questions if something in the description of the item is unclear; this includes any insight they can offer. For those who are shopping in person, be sure to take the opportunity to thoroughly inspect an item and whether or not it should make the cut for your swimwear collection.
Shopping For Vintage Swimwear Tip No. 2: Check The Condition Of Threads And Elastic
When checking the condition of an item, shoppers should pay close attention to the more subtle details to ensure that it can withstand even more wear and tear. “Quality elastic will survive many swims and washes. But cheaper elastic can crack and degrade over time,” Rose explains. In other words, if an item appears to already be on its last leg in terms of fabrication and lacks the stretch one would typically find in a bathing suit, it may not be worth the trouble. The same can be said if the threads holding the piece together are fraying or unraveling — don’t force it and, instead, find a suit with better bones.
Shopping For Vintage Swimwear Tip No. 3: Ask Sellers For Flat-Lay Measurements
With the industry changing drastically over the decades, vintage size charts have a tendency to be a bit finicky. As a result, it’s often best to base your purchase on an item’s measurements, rather than a one-size-fits-all scale. For swimwear in particular, Rose suggests asking sellers for the flat-lay measurements — and in the case of bikinis, both tops and bottoms — if they’re not readily available so that you can compare to your own swimwear items. If you’re shopping for a secondhand swim piece, blind unseen or online rather than IRL, this will help you make an informed purchase and prevent any sizing snafus later down the line.
Shopping For Vintage Swimwear Tip No. 4: … And Then Compare With A Swimsuit You Already Own
Pro tip for those hoping to find their perfect swim fit: Find styles with measurements that are almost identical or at least close to similar swimsuit styles that you already own. That way, you can compare the two even if you’re unable to see the potential future purchases in person before fully committing. And if you fall in love with a suit and the sizing is slightly off, don’t hesitate to reach out to your favorite tailor — one who is well-versed in flexible materials — to bridge the gap.
Shopping For Vintage Swimwear Tip No. 5: Sniff Out Deadstock Styles
One thing to consider when shopping for secondhand swimwear is exclusively searching for deadstock pieces, or never worn but still vintage items. “About half of my inventory is vintage deadstock with the original tags and hygiene strips,” Rose says of her own Somebody’s Baby arsenal. “These pieces are usually priced a little higher, but worth it if you prefer something unworn.” This essentially eliminates a lot of the concerns and uneasiness that shoppers have around buying swimwear that’s already been worn — in some cases more than a few decades ago.
Shopping For Vintage Swimwear Tip No. 6: Always Soak At Home
While this may seem like common sense when shopping for vintage swimwear or lingerie, doing a preliminary soak before wearing your new item is key. Thankfully, there is a slew of gentle and inexpensive clothing cleansers on the market that will put your mind at ease and prep your newest swimwear additions prior to making their debut. For example, one can’t go wrong with The Laundress’s Sport Detergent, designed specifically to give your bathing suits and activewear the refresh it needs.