In the context of feminine youth, there is one rite of passage that seems to lead nowhere. It happens the moment a young girl dives into the ocean and discovers her bikini bottom has slipped south, while its top has shifted west and east.
Defiled by the wave, she learns something: Bikinis don't stay on very well in the water. Rather than retreat to the beach, she devises ways in which to move through the elements gracefully without exposing herself. She eventually borrows her brother's trunks, as lecherous waters continue to tug and tear at her clothing.
"You have to worry all the time about (your suit)," says beach-goer Erin Roberts, 18, of Huntington Beach, who admits that, while surfing once at Bolsa Chica, her bikini bottom slipped down around her ankles.
Fashion be damned; she immediately began wearing those long, baggy surfer trunks, so big she could swim in them.
Fashion happened anyway.
Those baggy beach britches that surfers have worn since the early '60s are finally being built with women in mind. It's a trend destined to become a core element in beachwear, because it combines function and fashion. Plus, it looks hot, says Bob McKnight, CEO of Quiksilver in Costa Mesa, a surfwear company that has launched a woman's boardshort line ($35 to $45). It's probably the first such line, though boardshorts have been around for men for decades.
A few summers ago, McKnight says, they began seeing women in Hawaii wearing guy's boardshorts, only in a different way. They let them hang real loose, so that the shorts caught on the hips and hung there and looked as if they might fall down. But beneath them were the polemic of the beach industry: the thong bikini. Just a hint of it showed above the trunks--enough to suggest what might or might not be underneath.
It was a look that was comfortable, and, because many of the women in Hawaii surfed, rode bodyboards, paddled and windsurfed, the other benefit was that the style worked in the water too.
The look is a natural progression of the grunge appeal that has dominated the beach/skate/snow industry for a few seasons, says Sonia Kasparian, design director for Roxy, Quiksilver's 3-year-old women's division. She says grunge was a distillation of the skateboard/hip-hop/street/Seattle rock 'n' roll scene that resulted in exaggerated bagginess, dark colors, flannel and all things hooded.
"We're playing a woman's femininity off the fact she wears men's clothing but in her own way," says Kasparian, 31. "That's the sexiness of it."
Kasparian says she began with their men's design and adapted it for a woman. She shortened the inseam, took in the waist, scooped it down in the front and up over the hips, following the curve of a woman's body. Then she added some room in the seat area. "We've made them more feminine because they're skimming the body," Kasparian says. "The long and baggy thing isn't happening so much anymore."
Big players in the surfwear industry claim they are not trend- or fashion-driven. Instead, they say, they seek to serve those wanting comfort and utility in a timeless style. Therefore, McKnight says, the women's trunk will be a mainstay of Quiksilver, which for its first 10 years made only the men's boardshorts and still calls itself a "board-riding company."
"They're the ultimate beach cover-up," says Kasparian, who has designed them in a five-ply Supplex, flight satin, ultra sheens and sharkskin, in a diversity of patterns, including leopard skin and Gidget kitsch, with silly names such as "Mrs. Potato Head," "Skinny Legs and All" and "Lee Press-On."
She expects this summer to be a big season for the woman's boardshort.
"They're a comfortable pair of shorts that can go in the water," Kasparian says. "There are girls out there in the water, and they're just as core as the guys out there. They're for women who want to take care of their bodies and show a different mentality and attitude than what we see with the thong. It's not a spoof--it's a serious lifestyle."
Kasparian is particularly satisfied with the fact world champion surfer Lisa Andersen wears her boardshorts. Andersen, 26, is the perfect Gidget of the '90s--blonde and energetic. Plus, she has a 2-year-old daughter, Erica.
"Lisa shows you don't have to give up one thing for another," Kasparian says. "It's not that we're embracing so much a particular activity. It's about the very way we live our lives. We can look good and still perform well."
Says Andersen, "I can't surf in a swimsuit. I'm one of those people who likes to be aware when my bum is sticking out while I'm doing a big bottom turn. I have a problem with that."
"The style is kinda retro," says Michael Dolsey of Michael Dolsey Designs, a Virginia-based boardshort manufacturer who identified the desire for a woman's boardshort through his 14-year-old daughter, Sarah. "She was wearing the men's trunks real low on her hips with her suit sticking out the top."
Dolsey says the surf shops he distributes to are nuts about the idea of a woman's boardshort and have ordered his designs unseen. "The boardshort as a beach cover-up will be a big market," Dolsey says.
"Personally, I'd like to see some floral prints and things that fit and look more feminine," says beach-goer Roberts, who buys her trunks at Kanvas by Katin in Huntington Beach, where she used to be a clerk. "I don't want to look like a guy out there in big ol' guys' trunks."
Roberts has Sato Hughes, Katin's seamstress since 1961, take the guys' trunks in a little in the waist. Hughes still makes custom trunks and has in recent years had a rash of requests for boardshorts for women. "We get a lot of requests for matching guys' and girls' trunks," says her son Glenn, who runs the shop.
"Girls have always been a bit more in touch with themselves," says Quiksilver's McKnight. "They want to be active. They don't want to be exploited. They want to show the guys they know what's up."