In summer at the shore, swimwear sometimes doubles as evening wear

When the rain started, Regina Fisher and Karen Gaul covered up their bikinis with towels and tube dresses, and headed for cover.

The pair, who traveled with friends Missy Bowman and Allison Zuino, all 32, from Philadelphia, had hit the Atlantic City beach in the early part of Friday, to catch some supposed rays.

But the skies turned stormy. And like so many of Atlantic City's visitors, the girls instead spent much of the afternoon and early evening at beachside bars and eateries - dressed as if they were headed to the beach.

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This being Gaul's bachelorette weekend, the women said they had come to Atlantic City for a girls' trip away. But - for the single among them - a little attention from guys wouldn't hurt, Fisher said.

The prospect of partying in swimwear left Gaul completely unfazed.

"We're at the beach! That's what the beach is - freeing," she said.

More and more local singles are embracing the same attitude about partying in attire normally reserved for stretching out on the sand: From day to night, beachwear might be what you end up wearing while on a date or flirting with a hottie across the bar.

A whole business has sprung up around that looser attitude: Nightclubs such as The Pool After Dark at Harrah's expect guests to get down on dancefloors scattered between swimming pools - meaning water-wear is the way to go.

And, closer to the beach, sits the Bikini Beach Bar, run by Bally's - an outdoor tiki bar where the dress code is practically spelled out above the entrance.

For lovers of social etiquette, the shore town bar scene has become fascinating.

"I've seen those beach bars, where it seems everything's more relaxed and allowed," said Mary Harris, a Princeton-based consultant on etiquette.

"Attitudes are generational, and always have been. Younger people have always been comfortable wearing less, while the older you get the more that's seen as not modest."

But the freed-up dress code doesn't mean there aren't pitfalls for partiers looking to meet the opposite sex.

After all, a casual chat at a bar with a stranger feels a little more risque if both of you are wearing what amounts to glorified underwear.

Dancing while dressed like that also gives people an eyeful.

Harris says that while other kinds of social gatherings steer clear of that awkwardness, it's clear the subculture of young singles is flirting with embracing it. "It's become a touchy area - beyond etiquette and what's tacky or tasteful, and into what messages you're sending," she says.

For Fisher, the towel was traded on the beach for a cotton dress. "We can cover up," she explained. "Skirts, sarongs, tops. But it's nice to feel like the scene is relaxed enough to let us wear what we want."

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