The answer - an exotic swimwear hybrid called the "monokini" - burst upon the industry at the tail end of last summer, capturing 5 percent of the maillot and bikini business, according to the Du Pont Co., which makes the Antron and Lycra fibers used in bathing-suit fabrics. Though clearly not a suit suitable for everybody (or every body), it is arguably the hottest thing under the sun this season.
A walk down the Seven Mile Beach shared by Avalon and Stone Harbor on a recent sunny afternoon turned up multiple choices of the sexy peekaboo garment, which appears, from the front and sometimes the back, to be a bikini, but is usually connected in some fashion at the sides (creating, one would imagine, tan lines that require detailed explanation).
"I got this one last year because I like to be different," said Jennifer Nice, 16, of Elizabethville, Pa., stopping a paddleball game to discuss her monokini, which featured a red top and black bottom with high-cut legs. "All my friends loved it. Now a lot of them want to get one."
"I think it's a great look," said Kristin Clark, 16, of Blue Bell, who was wearing a four-color monokini (a quadrachromatic monokini?) - blue and green on top, purple and pink on the bottom. "This one's new just this year, and I love it."
(Kristin, by the way, had left nothing to chance, bringing seven bathing suits - the monokini, five bikinis and a one-piece - for her two-week stay at the beach. Her favorite? "I guess my black bikini," she said after several seconds' thought.)
A tall male in faded blue swim trunks, holding a paper cup of beer in one hand and a Frisbee in the other, watched admiringly as Kristin and her cousin, Tracy Cipriano, 16, of Norristown, modeled their monokinis. (Tracy's was of a similar design to Kristin's, with a gray bottom and fluorescent green striped top.)
"It's a great look," said Ken Evans, 21, who lives near Pittsburgh but summers in Wildwood Crest. He said he'd met the two girls the day before. ''Guys really like it. In fact, whatever the girls wear, whatever the designers come up with, the guys are going to like it."
Of course, there's a catch - perhaps a Catch-16, because that just might be the maximum age at which the monokini, with its stomach-baring construction, should be worn. Even a slightly out-of-shape woman would have to be out of her mind to try breaking into this teenage monopoly. It's cruel out there on the boardwalk.
Though the monokini is the most striking trend to emerge in shore fashion this year, the look on the beach was far from monotonous. For one thing - or is it two? - the bikini, after years of taking the back seat to the one-piece suit, is back in a big way.
Bikinis celebrated their 40th anniversary just last year, but the look has changed a bit - perhaps to accommodate the maturing bodies of female baby boomers? The "in" look for the 1987 bikini features a strapless top and a bottom with high-rise waist (offering stomach support) and high-cut legs (elongating the thighs).
"I definitely love the high-cut leg," said Alicia Crafts, 20, a Stone Harbor waitress with long dark hair and long, long legs emphasized by her very high-cut flowered bikini bottom. "I've always worn a two-piece, except when I was real little. If you have nice thighs and a nice waist, it enhances them. My mom says, if you've got it, flaunt it!"
Still, the majority of sunbathers on the beach remain faithful to the one- piece suit, which continues to account for 78 percent of women's swimwear sales. Not only is it more flattering to a variety of figure types, it's also more likely to stay on in the unlikely event that the wearer decides to actually swim.
And then there are those who opt for something just a little bit different - like Marie Fauser, 29, who was interrupted as she and Avalon housemate Jim Lomanno were striding purposefully down the beach, planning a 40-block trek.
Fauser, a statuesque woman with layered blond hair and heavy silver earrings, was wearing a black bikini with high-cut legs, a high neck and racer back. The suit was covered with silver sparkles that resolved themselves, on closer inspection, into lettering.
"I just got this in the mail today!" exclaimed Fauser, a cocktail waitress at Downey's who spends Monday through Thursday each week at the beach. "I ordered it from Looie's in Margate. It's got California names all over it - see, there's San Diego, the Pacific Ocean, San Pedro Bay. . . ."
As her companion watched quizzically, she turned around on the sand, arching her back and peering over her shoulder at her derriere. "Let's see, what's back here - Los Angeles, Long Beach, Nob Hill. . . ."
Actually, Fauser said, she selected the suit more for its design than its West Coast motif. "I'm long-waisted, and I look horrible in other bikinis. This one cuts up my torso," she explained.
Still, it just may foreshadow the next trend. Is the beach ready for the ''geokini"?