MANTEO, N.C.

A bathing suit worn more than a century ago in places like the Outer Banks is on display.

With buttons above the waist leading to a wide collar and a hem down to the knees, it looks more like a Sunday dress than swimming gear.

It was a more modest time.

A compilation of swimsuits going back more than 100 years hangs on manikins within the ticket sales gallery at the Roanoke Island Festival Park. The free exhibit is open through September.

Collector Elaine B. Henson of Wilmington began collecting vintage swimsuits about 15 years ago, at first to decorate her beach cottage. She bought a suit with the idea of framing it, but it was too large and bulky. She bought a child’s bathing suit from the era and framed that instead.

“I was very surprised,” she said. “There was a lot more to them then than there is today.”

The Outer Banks are crowded with sun bathers during the hot summer weeks wearing just enough to fill a clam shell and no one thinks much of it. But a century ago, visitors came from inland regions and rented a beach outfit, Henson said. Early suits were made of wool and could include bloomers and stockings. It was more about splashing or wading than actually swimming.

Very few people knew how to swim, Henson said.

One of Henson’s old photos shows a woman in the 1920s wearing wet garb that hangs nearly to her knees, while her two sons one-piece outfits drape from shoulders to shins. Their suits are stamped across the chest with the name of Lumina, a pavilion at Wrightsville Beach.

In the 1920s, authorities would measure how far above the knees the swimming skirt fell. Women could be fined or arrested if it was too short.

Later, companies like Jantzen made suits smaller and from synthetic materials to make them more stretchy.

During World War II, the government rationed clothing materials. Swimsuit makers did their part by making two-piece versions, according to the Smithsonian.

But the navel remained covered until French designer Louis Reard made the bikini, named for Bikini Atoll, where the U.S. tested an atomic bomb. Conventional models refused to wear it so he hired a Paris nude dancer named Micheline Bernadini. She was the first to wear a bikini on July 5, 1946.

“It was shocking,” Henson said.

Bridgitte Bardot and others began appearing in bikinis in movies and over time the design was accepted. In recent years, companies have offered vintage suits again.

“What’s old is always new again,” Henson said.

Henson will give a presentation on the history of bathing suits in advertising on July 22 at 6 p.m. in the small auditorium at Roanoke Island Festival Park.

Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com

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