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Suit Yourself – Bathing Suits Made To Order

May 15th, 1998

Last year I left my favorite bathing suit hanging in a hotel bathroom in Dallas. I called the hotel four times trying to get it back. “It was hanging on the back of the door!” I told housekeeping, security, lost and found and the concierge. They couldn’t find it.

It was a one piece black tank suit with a nice deep rounded front and a low back. The mid section had cut-outs set in black mesh giving me the illusion of a more pronounced waist and adding a mod look to a simple cut. I tried on about 7000 suits before I found it.

I lost my great suit at the end of summer, two weeks before we were going to spend three days at Reggae at the River. I hurried to the store to find a replacement. I bought a fairly decent black one piece with a plunging neckline and funny breast pads that shift around when I’m in the water. It cost me over $100 dollars. But whatever! If I it looks okay, I’ll pay whatever they ask!

I get to the point where I don’t care if the damned thing is made of chinchilla; just get me into one that doesn’t make me want to cry.

I believe that no matter what you feel about your body, buying a bathing suit is an amazingly difficult task for women. Finding a decent bathing suit can be so difficult and demoralizing that after having tried two dozen suits last fall, even I tried on the Calvin Klein’s models. I quickly rationalized that when it comes to bathing suits any suit that looks well will do. I get to the point where I don’t care if the damned thing is made of chinchilla, just get me into one that doesn’t make me want to cry.

In a week, I am leaving for my honeymoon: sixteen days in French Polynesia. I decided I should take the time to find a new suit – or two. I mentioned this to a friend of mine and she said she knew of a place where they make bathing suits to order. “Well, what could be cooler than that?” I thought.

I planned a time when I could go to the store at Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek, 26 miles east of San Francisco. I grew up in Walnut Creek and Broadway Plaza is the shopping area of my childhood. I have literally dozens and dozens of memories of Broadway Plaza. As a little girl my friends and I would ride our bikes downtown and buy Swedish Berries at the candy counter in Capwell’s Department Store. I bought my first 45, American Pie by Don McLean, on Broadway Plaza when I was in the second grade. I have distinct memory of shopping for Christmas cards at Walnut Creek Stationers with my mother late one Christmas Eve in about 1969. I bought books at Books Inc., birthday presents at Birdie’s Toy Store and single Bordeaux chocolates at See’s. I had my first job at Bresler’s Ice Cream and shoplifted at Bullocks department store. None of these stores are there any more.

With great anticipation, I found Calla Bay, the specialty bathing suit store. I was the only customer when I arrived and the saleswoman soon told me how the place works. On the walls of the store are photographs of all the different styles. In the photo examples, each style is done in black onthe same model standing in the same pose. There are more than fifty different styles and 150 fabric choices.

One wall has photographs of about 20 one piece options, another has 15 or so tops and another has the bottoms. You mix and match. After you decide on a style, you get to choose the fabric and in most cases the cut of the leg (high, medium or low). Some versions also have variations on underwires, padded cups, or “controlling” fabric.

They had virtually every style you can think of. They even had a black one piece with black mesh cut into the midsection. There were tops that plunged, with straps or strapless or one with a solid halter that would cover your chest up to your neck. The bottoms ranged from a thong to a modesty type skirt. Some were cut to cover the belly button, another plunged low in a V, another had a belt. The examples seemed to allow that there was a suit for every woman. You get to pick based on what looks flattering on you. It felt very freeing that way. In my forty-five minutes there, I didn’t experience any of the anxiety I normally do when bathing suit shopping.

The clerk was an average looking woman, about 5’3″ and 140 pounds or so, probably about 30 years old. She explained that I should look at the styles and choose a few to start with. She asked for my breast cup size and pant size and said she would bring me sample suits to try on. I chose a black one piece and a couple versions of tops and bottoms.

I followed her out of the main room into a foyer with a couple chairs, a three way mirror and a wall full of drawers. Each style of one piece, top and bottom are in drawers according to size with different leg cuts. All of the samples are black. She led me to a dressing room beyond the foyer and handed me the samples and a disposable pair of panties for trying them on. The sample suits all also had a sanitary strip taped in them. The dressing rooms each have a robe that you can wear to go look at other styles without having to get dressed again.

I tried on the samples and stepped out to look in the three way mirror. The clerk brought different sizes and styles to me as I needed them. I don’t know if my memory is fond and hazy now as I write this, but I do not recall the lighting being that harsh department store fluorescent. I don’t know which element made me feel so at ease, but the combination of factors made me less critical of myself in the mirror. I could see the cellulite and I could see that my breasts are kind of little and my waist is kind of big, but I was able to just look at myself and say “yep, that’s my body. Now which suit do I want?”

Ultimately, I chose a one piece and a two piece. The one piece is a tank suit with no structure in the breast, and a zipper down the front (it is my honeymoon!) and high cut legs. I chose a wide ribbed navy fabric. For the two piece, I chose a classic top like I wore in high school: two triangles with two strings holding it together. The bottoms are called “The Basic” and are cut high on the belly and medium on the legs. The fabric is a bright blue Hawaiian print.

My order went off to Seattle where they are sewn and then shipped back in two weeks time. They don’t charge for shipping. My total for two suits was $173.20.

I think this idea is going to sweep the nation, both as Calla Bay expands and in all likelihood as other companies launch their own version. The experience was soooo different than it usually is and I felt that for that reason alone I wanted to patronize them. It was delightful to have a patient individual wait on me, to have so many choices and so much permission to wear a bathing suit. Every woman should be able to go to the pool or beach and feel the sun on her flesh regardless of how that flesh may compare to the ideal du jour.

Summer’s coming gals. Enjoy it.

Calla Bay has five stores at present. They are:
Scottsdale Fashion Square, Scottsdale, AZ 602-425-9911
Broadway Plaza, Walnut Creek, CA 925-933-6796
Valley Fair, Santa Clara, CA 408-248-7200
The Boulevard Mall, Las Vegas, NV 702-737-3116
Alderwood Mall, Lynnwood, WA 425-712-1668
Bellevue Square, Bellevue, WA 425-454-1433


Kathy Bruin is the founder of About-Face. She will be in and out of her Calla Bay bathing suits over the next month….