By Anne Rose | Give them beaches, and they will come, with a parade of swim attire that reveals a decade-by-decade slice of life.
Covered up, cut-out, lowered down or raised up – even emblazoned with seaside bathhouse rental insignia – the vintage swimwear in this captivating local collection illustrates both the story of Wilmington’s connection to its nearby beaches, and snippets of cultural and social history.
The swimsuits and other memorabilia, which belong to Elaine Henson, are on display through the end of August at Federal Point Historical Society. Elaine undertook the challenge of collecting vintage bathing suits when she retired her effort adding to her thousands of postcards and advertising artwork featuring the seashore, seaside tourist attractions, and swim fashions.
It seems a natural progression: the vintage swimwear brings Elaine’s 2-dimensional art collection to life.
This historical retrospective is particularly well-suited to the beaches – from Carolina to Wrightsville – lined up like a swimsuit competition for “Best in Nostalgia.” The exhibit includes 23 suits, and includes women, men and children’s suits and a pictorial display highlighting Carolina Beach beach life and swim fashions over the years.
Each suit evokes a mini history lesson. For example, the circa 1920 men’s one piece suit was a rental, stamped with the letters S A M, the initials of the bath house, in gold. When railroads began to crisscross the country in the late 1800s, beachside towns were suddenly accessible to people who had never been to the shore. Making a train trip to the seashore was a “spa” experience: saltwater and fresh ocean air were purported to be therapeutic to the skin. Going to the beach for the day was not just a recreational experience, it was a health pilgrimage. People from around the country came to Wilmington and the beaches for the weekend, hitting the sand in rented suits. This “midwinter surf-bathing” was not an athletic outing; bathers waded into the waves and held onto straps that hung from heavy lifelines secured to poles sunk deep into the sand along Wrightsville and Carolina Beach.
Other highlights of the collection, after the early “swimming costumes” that bear more resemblance to overcoats than swimwear, are the 1930s cotton “Velva-Lure” lady’s pale jade one piece suit with crisscross self-ties in the back and Jantzen swim girl logo, a 1940s yellow woven rayon and Lycra lady’s two piece suit with bra top, and a 1970s red and white polyester check lady’s one piece suit with boy short legs and bust boning.
“I’ve had a collection all of my adult life,” Elaine says, explaining how the swimsuits evolved from her vintage postcard collection. “I have almost 2000 postcards of Wilmington, Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach, and a whole collection of bathing beauties in vintage advertising art. I was just captivated by the gorgeous images, and then a suit would come up in my search, and I thought I might use them as beach house décor.”
Elaine curated the current vintage swimwear exhibit, adding postcards, historical narratives, vintage photographs and memorabilia to the display of swimsuits. The history is fascinating, she says, from the bathing suit companies’ cutting-edge use of fabrics to the evolution of sexy, body-baring swimsuits that foiled earlier generation’s attempts at modesty. Jantzen and Catalina, fashion and advertising powerhouses, are important components of the swimwear story, she notes.
“There needs to be a stopping point with every collection,” Elaine suggests. “Now that I have the swim dresses, I’m done … I have a whole century represented in the swimsuits – after I’ve added mine from the 80s and 90s, I’m done.”
She hesitates. “Yes, I’m done,” she reiterates, with the wistfulness of a dedicated collector.
Visit the exhibit!
Vintage Bathing Suits 1900-1990
Now through August
Tuesday, Friday and Saturday from 10-4
Carolina Beach History Center next to Town Hall on Lake Park Blvd