How the ‘Baywatch’ Swimsuit Became a Summer Classic

How the ‘Baywatch’ Swimsuit Became a Summer Classic

At the height of its popularity, the 1990s TV show “Baywatch” was bringing in 1.1 billion worldwide weekly viewers. It made Pamela Anderson and Carmen Electra famous, revived (again) the career of David Hasselhoff and inspired a 2017 movie. Now the series can be handily retrieved on Amazon Prime and Hulu — in high definition and with 350 new original songs added to the score to help draw in millennial viewers. But what about “Baywatch” is most memorable, lasting and important?

Its red one-piece swimsuit.

Of late Kylie Jenner, Selena Gomez, Hailey Bieber and Jennifer Lopez have all posted snapshots wearing “Baywatch”-esque suits on social-media feeds, inspiring fans to swap their bikinis for maillots.

“It’s awesome to see people now embracing that fashion, oftentimes tagging it as ‘Baywatch,’” said the actress Kelly Packard, who made several appearances in the series before landing the reoccurring role of April Giminski in seasons 8 and 9. She follows #baywatch on Instagram and said she sees “thousands” of posts on the subject a day.

Brian Davis, designer of Magicsuit swimwear, created the Scuba Blake one-piece, a modern twist on the Baywatch suit for the 2019 swimwear season. He said it has sold briskly, priced at $168. “As a swimwear designer it is impossible not be inspired and influenced by the iconic ‘Baywatch’ swimsuit,” Mr. Davis said. “Who can forget the image of Pamela Anderson and Yasmine Bleeth running down the beach, hair flying in the wind, clad in that hot cherry red one-piece?”

Who indeed?

The suit has been trending for at least two years. Ashley Graham’s Swimsuits for All released an ad to promote its 2017 summer line, which featured Ms. Graham and the models Niki Taylor and Teyana Taylor as lifeguards. The company offers its customers myriad variations of one-pieces, many of which encompass the high leg opening and scoop neck that defined the “Baywatch” look.

Chromat also showed several versions of a red one-piece in its lifeguard-themed “Pool Rules” campaign, which promoted the company’s inclusive sizes and styles.

Also in 2017, a high-waisted suit called the Pamela Sunny Suit made by Sunny Co Clothing and priced at $99.99 had 50,000 orders in 29 minutes after an Instagram giveaway campaign, according to the company, since selling over 100,000. People understandably thought the name was a nod to Pamela Anderson, the most famous star of “Baywatch.” But Alan Alchalel, Sunny Co Clothing’s founder and C.E.O., insisted this was not so.

“Our suits get named after the first person to model it for us,” he said. “Ironically the girl’s name was Pamela.”

The official “Baywatch” swimsuits were inspired by those worn by real lifeguards on beaches in Southern California. Greg Bonann, a creator of the series and lifeguard himself, enlisted TYR, a competitive swimwear company, for help with the design. “I wanted them to be real and practical and actually work in the surf,” Mr. Bonann said.

The company created a red one-piece bathing suit as the wardrobe’s template, then took measurements of each actress playing a lifeguard. The goal, Mr. Bonann said, was to flatter each star’s body — for example, putting Alexandra Paul’s athletic frame “in a high neck suit with bare shoulders,” while shorter cast members like Erika Eleniak, Ms. Packard and Ms. Electra, were given higher-cut legs to fake the appearance of height.

The suits were then outfitted with official “Baywatch Lifeguard” patches. “The red bathing suit has absolutely no meaning whatsoever without a patch on it,” Mr. Bonann said. “As far as the real lifeguard is concerned, that is the iconic thing.”

Michael Berk, another creator of the show, said. “We never tried to be sexy intentionally. It was all about athletics and functionality.” This was also the case with the famous slow-motion run, an idea that came from Mr. Bonann after he filmed the Olympic hundred-yard dash runners in slow motion to show off their athleticism. “When we did our original music video that we did to sell ‘Baywatch,’ we were filming the lifeguards sprinting to the rescue in slow motion to build up the tension,” Mr. Berk said. “And suddenly it became this very sexy thing.”

Throughout the years, the “Baywatch” suits took on many different iterations; Speedo, JAG and Kiwi Swim all contributed designs. Necklines got lower, legs got higher and versions appeared with variations like zippers in the front. “We stuck with the authentic style but we tweaked it and made it more exciting than what is standard wear for the lifeguard,” said Karen Braverman Freeman, a costume designer for the show.

The cast of a “Rookie School” subplot, which included Ms. Electra, started in a black version of the one-piece. When the show went to Hawaii, Mr. Bonann had yellow suits commissioned. In addition, there were sometimes separate suits for water stunts and land. “It would be indistinguishable to most people except to the girl who was wearing it that the water suit was much tighter than the beach suit,” he said.

Almost three decades after the show’s premiere, the “Baywatch” cast looked back fondly in phone interviews on their days in the red suit.

Ms. Eleniak said she’s been a “one-piece girl” since her time on “Baywatch.” “I haven’t worn a bikini in probably 30 years.”

Ms. Electra laughed as she remembers her initial encounter with the swimsuit, which she had admired as a fan of the series before landing the role of Lani McKenzie in 1997. The actress had no idea she’d be asked to put the suit on during her audition read with Mr. Hasselhoff, and having rushed over from the set of MTV’s “Singled Out,” she admits to having slipped into the suit with unshaved legs. “I was like, ‘Oh, I hope they don’t see that!’” she said.

Ms. Packard became a regular later in the series, when she says the suits had transitioned from a traditional lifeguard look to “a swimsuit that was barely covering anything.” After struggling to keep the back from riding up while filming, she was directed to an on-site trailer to pick out another suit, settling on one that Ms. Paul had previously worn.

Ms. Anderson said modesty was not an issue for her but confirmed that the suits were pretty fitted. “Some people bring me bathing suits to sign autographs on and they are these big bathing suits and I say, ‘Listen, my bathing suit was tiny. It just stretched and pulled onto your body,’” she said.

And while Nicole Eggert, who played Summer Quinn, recalled that wearing the Baywatch wardrobe made her feel “proud and powerful,” there was a downside: the tan lines. It was as if “I wore a white one-piece when I was naked all the time,” she said.

Those involved with “Baywatch” said they were thrilled to see suits inspired by the show on beaches today.

Ms. Anderson is proud to still fit in her original suit and admits to slipping into it every now and then, if the mood strikes, surprising whomever she’s dating. “I jump in the shower with a bathing suit and then jump on them wherever they are in the house, soaking wet,” she said.

Ms. Electra has taken a more curatorial approach. “I have my suit framed and when people come over to the house, they get really excited,” she said. “It just has this effect on people. It was empowering.”

Deeming the suit’s shade of red a powerful and heroic hue, Mr. Berk said that he’s working with Pantone, the color standards company, to make “Baywatch Red” a proprietary shade.

And while waistlines of two-pieces may rise and fall, Ms. Eggert thinks the “Baywatch” suit’s particular cut will never go out of style. “It’s a little bit more interesting than your average bikini. It’s not just about the body,” she said. “It’s sexy without being too revealing so it works on all body types.”

Ms. Packard said, “The fact that it’s still a trend to wear a one-piece speaks volumes because prior to ‘Baywatch,’ I think there was this notion that to look sexy, you had to wear a string bikini.”

Ms. Anderson suggested that “maybe it was the people in the bathing suit that made it more exciting,” before noting that the show represented a time of youth and innocence that the suit continues to embody. “And we were kind of the California dream.”

Mr. Bonann, who today serves as an instructor to junior lifeguards, says his charges are given both a red one and two-piece and much prefer the one-piece.

“One of my girls just got a job as a real lifeguard and was telling me how excited she was to be wearing her red one-piece bathing suit and that she had worn it all day around her house that day,” he said. “So the red one-piece bathing suit is still iconic. Even to the real lifeguards themselves.”

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