A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Elaine Henson stands in the upstairs closet of her Tudor revival home in Wilmington and contemplates the garment bags lined up before her. She’s dressed in workout capris and tennis

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Elaine Henson stands in the upstairs closet of her Tudor revival home in Wilmington and contemplates the garment bags lined up before her. She’s dressed in workout capris and tennis

Bathing Beauties

Vintage "bathing beauty" postcards and old bathing suits.

Elaine Henson stands in the upstairs closet of her Tudor revival home in Wilmington and contemplates the garment bags lined up before her. She’s dressed in workout capris and tennis shoes, and sports coral lipstick. She unzips the bags one at a time to reveal her collection of bathing suits — some of which date back to the 1880s.

“Look at the straps on this one,” she says with a chuckle, pulling out a 1920s wool-knit navy one-piece with side cutouts. “People are always so surprised when I tell them that men would wear these things, but they certainly did because at that time, a man couldn’t be in a bathing area without something covering his top.”

Elaine Henson on the porch of her home; a 1930s child's one-piece suit framed in the bedroom

Decorating her beach cottage with old postcards gave Elaine Henson the idea to start collecting vintage bathing suits. A 1930s child’s one-piece (right) was the first in her collection. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

Henson points to the gold initials SAM stamped across the chest — a bathhouse label that means this garment was once a rental. A history lover, Henson explains that around the beginning of the 20th century, folks would travel across America on trains just to experience the therapeutic properties of the coasts’ salty waters. Back then, every beach had a bathhouse, where visitors changed into rented bathing suits, went out for a swim, returned for a shower, and then changed back into their street clothes.

“I just love seeing people’s reactions when I tell them that everyone rented their bathing suits back then,” Henson says. “They get pretty grossed out.”

• • •

A retired second grade teacher and a Wilmington native, Henson’s vintage bathing suit collection was inspired by a previous fascination: old postcards. In 2003, she and her husband, Skip, purchased a 1940s cottage in Carolina Beach that Henson quickly set out to decorate with classic postcards of local beaches. She would scour eBay for the postcards, and eventually amassed more than 2,000 of the 3-by-5s, which then prompted her to look through old advertisements of “bathing beauties.” Intrigued by the retro magazine ads, she decided to purchase a bathing suit to hang as artwork in her cottage.

Henson’s earliest memories of bathing suits stretch back to her family vacations at Wrightsville Beach. She fondly recalls her parents having to wrangle her and her siblings out of the ocean, coaxing them over with cups of lemonade and banana sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.

Three vintage bathing suits hang on the clothes line

As Henson says, when it comes to swimsuits, it’s all about fabric. Polyester, used in each of these one-pieces, has always been popular for its resistance to chlorine and ability to reflect UV light. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

By high school, Henson realized that a perfect day at the beach started with the perfect swimsuit. She added new suits to her wardrobe every spring, oftentimes purchasing ones she liked in multiple colors. A bathing beauty in her own right, Henson kept her beloved suits for decades, amassing dozens over the years. Her favorite is her timeless polka-dot bikini, a black strapless two-piece with multicolored spots that she wore to both a beach event in the 1980s and on her honeymoon cruise with Skip in 1992.

Henson began her collection by purchasing a ’30s yellow jacquard child’s one-piece on eBay, which she had framed and hung. She then set out to find an early-1900s swim dress and soon connected with a local family in possession of a navy worsted-wool swim dress and a cotton bodice with matching navy wool bloomers.

Turn-of-the-century swimsuits including a navy wool dress, wool-knit briefs, and a hunter green silk taffeta suit

At the turn of the 20th century, it was common for swimsuits to be made with wool and silk. Henson’s collection includes a navy wool dress, wool-knit briefs, and a hunter green silk taffeta suit. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel

“I made them an offer, and they turned me down,” Henson says. “I knew I had to have it, so I called them back and offered twice as much, which they took. That’s still the most I’ve ever paid for a suit, but it doesn’t matter because it’s one of my favorites.”

Henson found her next suit — a navy wool one-piece with a button-on skirt, middy collar, and wool stockings — at an antiques store in Wilmington. But as she got ready to frame some of her newest acquisitions, she realized she had a problem: While the child’s suit was a perfect size for framing, the adult ones were much too large to work as wall art. “But by then I was bitten by the bug, so I just kept buying them,” she says.

• • •

When it comes to bathing suits, Henson says that fabric is everything. She researched how the industry evolved over the years. She learned that suits of the late 1800s were made from natural materials like cotton, wool, linen, and silk. The introduction of rayon in the 1930s — the first synthetic fabric, referred to as “artificial silk” due to its smooth texture and cheap cost — eventually changed the landscape of swimwear. In the 1930s, Lastex revolutionized the industry with its ability to dry faster and hold its shape. The invention of the two-piece, and later the bikini, happened as a result of World War II, when the government rationed fabrics for uniforms. “The way the bathing suit manufacturers coped with that is they just bared the middle,” Henson says.

As Henson’s knowledge grew, so did her collection. She purposefully searched for suits that represented as many decades as possible, from the 1880s to the 1980s. Some showstoppers in her collection include a 1930s ribbed-wool knit brief with a button-key pocket and cotton belt and a 1940s hunter green silk taffeta one-piece that’s fashioned with a zippered skirt over cotton-knit bloomers. Henson says that her collection stands nearly complete at 27 suits, with at least one from every decade. And she contributes her knowledge to her community: Henson serves on centennial committees for the Cape Fear Garden Club, St. Andrew’s On-the-Sound Episcopal Church, and the Town of Carolina Beach, and dedicates her time to sharing local history through presentations and slideshows.

“To me, these suits don’t just represent something you wear to the beach or the pool,” she says. “Each of them, with their own unique characteristics, is a little microcosm of a period in history, a little slice of what life was like in the time they were worn.”

Henson plans to one day donate her postcard and swimsuit collections to UNC Wilmington, her alma mater. For now, she’s just happy to relax at her beach house when she can, and makes sure to pack enough one-pieces so she can wear a different suit each day. While the thrill of the coast hasn’t changed since her childhood, these days Henson adds a wide-brim straw hat to her outfit whenever possible; a bathing beauty always wants to avoid a sunburn.