What's The Difference Between A $13 Swimsuit And A $300 Swimsuit?

Experts sound off on whether it's worth the investment and why.

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From left: Shein's colorblock surplice neck one-piece swimsuit, $13; Summersalt's "The Marina," $95; Karla Colletto "Sorella," $311 (currently sold out)
Shein/Summersalt/Karla Colletto
From left: Shein's colorblock surplice neck one-piece swimsuit, $13; Summersalt's "The Marina," $95; Karla Colletto "Sorella," $311 (currently sold out)

Every body is a bikini body ― but not every bikini is created equal.

If you’re in the market for a swimsuit, you’ve likely been targeted by ads for outrageously affordable suits on Instagram, marketed alongside suits that will set you back almost a month’s rent.

When it comes to such a contentious piece of clothing, one with the power to make or break our beachgoing experience, what do we need to know about investing in a pricier suit? Is it worth it? What is the real difference?

Before summer is gone for good, we spoke with two people who are pretty familiar with the topic to get some answers. Margaret Bishop is an instructor in textile development and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Lori Coulter is the co-founder and CEO of cult-favorite swimwear brand Summersalt, which boasts designer quality at a more reasonable price point of $95 per suit. Here’s what they had to say.

The fabric is everything

Unsurprisingly, the price difference often comes down to fabric: what fabric the suit is made of, the lining the suit does or does not have, and the varying costs of the fabric based on its elasticity, support and control.

“Virtually all swimsuits today are made from fabric that has a high elastane or spandex or Lycra content to give us that stretch and recover we love,” Bishop told HuffPost. “You need a good quality yarn and a high enough number of stitches per inch for better durability and coverage. When you have a higher number of stitches per inch, it impacts the cost of the fabric, so if someone is trying to reduce costs, they might go lighter on the yarn and use fewer stitches per inch, and that’s in turn going to be a less durable product that is not going to give you the same coverage you frankly need in a swimsuit.”

To understand the impact a lower stitch count has, Bishop compares it to the phenomenon of the see-through legging plight consumers face when, say, bending over in an inexpensive (and sometimes expensive!) pair of pants.

An inexpensive bathing suit might hold up for a wear or two, but Bishop likens it to a dress you might buy to go out partying in once, in which case you might not necessarily care about the quality of the fabric.

“Quality really does matter, particularly with something like a swimsuit, where you need a certain amount of coverage,” she said. “A better quality swimsuit is going to have things like strategic lining in the front crotch area and bust line. If you’re buying a figure control bathing suit, then it’s probably going to be at a higher price point too because of the more dense fabric, additional lining or a style with more ruching or gathering, increasing the amount of fabric total that is required.”

Every stitch matters

Another difference between an expensive and inexpensive swimsuit is something Bishop says is easy to overlook: stitching.

“The stitching is particularly important with any type of garment with stretch because you need the seam to hold when the fabric stretches,” she said. That requires more attention to detail, which requires more time and money, which can result in a more expensive bathing suit.

“It may seem really minuscule in importance to say, ‘OK, we’re gonna have 12 stitches instead of 8 per inch,’ but it does in fact make a big difference,” she said.

From left to right: Shein's striped trim triangle top and bottom, $11; Diane von Furstenberg's banded dot bikini set, $226
From left to right: Shein's striped trim triangle top and bottom, $11; Diane von Furstenberg's banded dot bikini set, $226

Bishop recommends comparing stitching between three or four suits at different price points to see if there’s a significant difference. “If I saw a real difference in how dense that stitching was, how close together the yarns were, then I would reconsider whether to buy the less expensive suit,” she said. “I would recognize the seam might not hold as well.”

So yes, it is perhaps worth it to invest in a higher quality swimsuit with a high number of stitches per inch, a solid seam and a sturdy feeling fabric. But if it’s not in your budget, Bishop has a few words of advice for what to try before you buy.

“Bring a friend to the dressing room and have that friend photograph you front and back, including as you move, to see if you’re getting the coverage you want,” she said. Sometimes coverage can be addressed by going up a size, but not always. “I would also probably be more inclined to purchase something with a busy print that’s going to visually distract your attention from any deficits in the fabric itself.”

Brand names alone can drive up price

Unsurprisingly, there are instances when the name attached to the swimsuit is the culprit behind a cost spike.

“Some brands are operating on a low volume, high profit business model, which means they have to earn more profit per unit because they’re selling fewer units,” Bishop said. “That could be a deliberate branding strategy to be perceived as more luxurious.”

Coulter added that the many hands involved in making the swimsuit and bringing it to shelves all carry high costs. Going direct to consumer, as her brand does, helps alleviate those costs without, she says, impacting quality.

“In swimwear there are tons of middlemen,” she said. “A major brand will sell the license to a third party who aggregates 10-15 brands, who hires another third party to represent those brands to major retailers. In any stage of the supply chain, those partners are taking a percentage of the sale.”

We never thought we’d need to use our math skills when bathing suit shopping, but if counting stitches, examining seams and testing out fabric is what it takes to feel better at the beach, count us in.

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