Swimsuit types explained - your go-to guide for your next swimwear purchase

Swimsuit types can be difficult to decode – here we breakdown the key styles to help you choose the perfect piece for you

swimsuit types: Seafolly, Next, Sloggi, Cos, Bravissimo
(Image credit: Seafolly, Next, Sloggi, Cos, Bravissimo)

Navigating the numerous swimsuit types can be a sartorial nightmare. With some many different designs now available, here we explain the different swimwear shapes available and the body types best suited to each.

Shopping for the best swimsuit is rarely straightforward, as there are a number of factors to consider. Do you want a one- or two-piece? Something sporty? Or are you more concerned with the level of support, for piece of mind when swimming. The best high-waisted swimsuits, sculpt, support and highlight your waist, but there are also low-slung, midi and barely-there briefs, for those that want a little less coverage. The options are endless, and that’s before you’ve even considered things like colour and fabric. 

“A range of things can influence the type of swimwear we buy,” says celebrity stylist Ellis Ranson. “Trends come and go. For example, there was a stage where we didn’t care about tan lines and wore embellished styles with lots of straps. Now, the fashion is simple, basic looks with triangle and bandeau bikinis among the go-to's this season. It’s important you feel comfortable, so finding the right swimwear types to give you the fit and coverage you want is key.”

To help you decode the different swimsuit types from the best swimsuit brands, we’ve broken them down into the main categories, with the low-down on the core styles for each. 

Swimsuit types that will solve all your beach day dilemmas

One pieces

A one-piece, is an all-in-one item that covers both your top and bottom half in one go. “A one-piece is easier to put on and take off than a two-piece, and is more secure in strong surf,” says swimwear designer Megan Mae Stevens. “Primarily though, it’s a matter of personal covered look, or if you’re keen to max out your cost-per-wear with a piece that can also double as a bodysuit worn with your best jeans. Swimsuits often fall into one of two categories, fashion or functional, but that’s not to say there isn’t a crossover between the two. Functional swimwear will be more focused on keeping you comfortable and secure when enjoying swimming and watersports, with details like high necks, zip backs and long sleeves. Fashion one piece swimsuits on the other hand focus on swimwear trends, but it doesn't mean that they'll all sacrafice function for form, but aesthetics is highly important in this category. This season look out for asymmetric necklines, bandeau styles and cutouts. Swimsuits can also include swim dresses, which are ideal for a little bit of extra thigh and bottom coverage and usually have attached swim briefs underneath the skirt element. 

Swim tops

A swim top is any top that’s worn for swimming or sunbathing. They’re also referred to as bikini tops, but this swimsuit type also includes long-sleeved rash vests and the best tankini tops. If you’re opting for a bikini or tankini, the neckline you choose will be determined by things like your personal preference, whether you’re worried about tan lines and also your bust size. For example, if you have a large bust, you may want an underwired style with wider, adjustable straps to give you the support you need. Halter neck silhouettes can also work well for fuller busts as the straps going around the neck can offer extra lift. 

On the other side of the coin, those with smaller busts may opt for a triangle or halter style for added boost. Alternatively, smaller busts may want to opt for a bandeau swimsuit, this is a strapless, fully shoulder baring style, and although fuller busts can wear this look, they generally aren't the most supportive of silhouettes.

 There are no set rules though, and plenty of space for experimenting with different swimsuit types. “For swim tops, we’re seeing a big underwire trend at the moment,” Brittany Kozerski Freeney, Founder and CEO of JADE Swim. “In the past, underwired styles were more used for larger busts to give support but now they’re becoming more of a design detail. Our customers have really been leaning into these styles and I think it’s a trend that’s here to stay.” If that sounds uncomfortable and niggling to you, don’t worry. “Bandeaus are great and another key swimwear top trend is ring detailing, as we’re taking a more minimalistic approach this summer,” adds Ranson. “It’s a really nice way to elevate your standard bikini.”

Swim briefs

We’ve covered the different swimsuit types within swim tops, so now for the bottom half. Swim briefs can range from teeny tiny thongs right through to longer-line trunks depending on your style and what you’ll be wearing them for. There are two particular swim brief trends for this season though that are worth taking note of: cheeky briefs and high-waisted swimwear briefs. 

“Perhaps the biggest trend in bottoms is the movement towards less coverage by decreasing the size of the back panel to make it more “cheeky” or thong-like,” explains Stevens. If the idea of that fills you with dread, don’t panic – the “big pant” trend will be more up your street and remains just as strong as ever, delivering a vintage swimsuit feel that gives a nod to the '50s. 

“We’re seeing a lot of swim briefs that sit higher on the hip, which creates a really flattering silhouette,” says Kozerski Freeney. Most brands will mention the level of brief coverage in the description of their products, so if more modest briefs are what you’re after, then look out for words like “high or full coverage” when shopping online. 

Is there a difference between a swimsuit and a bathing suit?

Confused about the difference between a swimsuit and a bathing suit? According to Stevens, “these terms can be used interchangeably, but swimsuits are specifically designed and engineered to be worn actively and function flawlessly in the water, holding their shape and fit. A bathing suit is an older term often applied to fuller-cut outfits that are designed for only modest activity levels at the beach or pool.” If you’re torn between the two, choose the one that best fits the poolside activities you have planned. “Swimsuits are meant for swimming, and that’s when you’re really looking for comfort and coverage,” adds Kozerski Freeney. “Bathing suits are more for sunbathing.” 

What classifies as swimwear? 

The answer to what classifies as swimwear is pretty straightforward. “In order to classify as swimwear, the garment must be designed and constructed for use primarily in swimming or water-related activities,” advises Stevens. “Swimwear is generally manufactured using manmade fibres such as nylon, and the fit is intended to be snug - often achieved by using Lycra or spandex yarn. Swimsuits are also specifically made with fabric that is resistant to the adverse effects of prolonged exposure to chlorine, salt water and the sun.” Swimwear can be anything from a bikini brief to a high-coverage, full-length swimsuit. “The different types of swimwear include bikinis, swimming costumes, swim dresses and swim shorts,” adds Ranson. 

Jess Beech

Jess Beech is an experienced fashion and beauty editor, with more than eight years experience in the publishing industry. She has written for woman&home, GoodtoKnow, Now, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Own and Chat, and is a former Deputy Fashion & Beauty Editor at Future PLC. A beauty obsessive, Jess has tried everything from cryotherapy to chemical peels (minus the Samantha in Sex and The City-worthy redness) and interviewed experts including Jo Malone and Trinny Woodall.