Don't dither, dive right in

Delay purchasing a bikini . . . and it will all end in tears

It's all wrong, I know, but now is the time to think of swimwear. If you wait until you actually need some, there will be very little left to choose from in the shops. This is where people go wrong with swimwear: lamenting the lack of choice and sizes when they've left it until a Saturday in July to go shopping. The second mistake is thinking that, because it's only a scrap of fabric, you should pay as little as possible.

Some years ago I tried on a bikini in Selfridges. It was very similar to the one Ursula Andress wore in the James Bond film Dr No: fairly high-waisted pants and a top with wide-set straps that pushed forward my bosom as keenly as a mother does her child at an audition. It cost, back then, about £60, but it made me look fantastic. It was a proper costume - well cut, with actual bra-cups etcetera - but I was too mean, thinking I'd find its like on the high street, and feel terribly clever and superior. Of course I never did, and I ended up with something cheap, with no structure, and of fabric so flimsy I might as well have made it out of old tights.

I had a reprieve in Toronto seven years ago when I visited a vintage shop called Courage My Love. (It's on Kensington Avenue, and if you're ever in Toronto, you simply must visit; forget the poncey vintage shops you get in some parts of the UK - this is the sort of place where you make real "finds".) Outside the shop was one of those circular rails, full of this and that. I found a 1960s swimsuit so amazing that I had to buy it without even trying it on: I'd learned my lesson from letting the Selfridges bikini get away from me.

It had moulded cups, a little skirt and a halter-neck, all in a wonderful floral pattern. My God, it was perfect, and it cost only about $7. Despite not containing Lycra, so that it bags rather around the bottom area, it is still the most fan tastic swimsuit ever. I mean, no matter how fat I've been, people say: "What a fantastic swimsuit" - sometimes even when I'm actually in it. They really don't make them like that any more because we're all a bit afraid of preformed cups these days, but they are absolutely the answer if you're not 13 years old with mere pinches of flesh for breasts.

Some women swear by Bravissimo (if they're larger-breasted) or by Boden's boy-leg swimsuit. If you have the time, however, a worthwhile thing to do is to get a swim suit made for you or get a favourite-but-flagging one copied. This doesn't cost any more than buying a decent one off the peg, but only one woman in the country does it ( and invariably there's a bit of a waiting list. But then, when you're wear ing so little, the little you're wearing really counts.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?