Trash or Treasure: Collector concentrates on bathing beauties

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Glenna Jo Christen is a fan and collector of antique clothing. Among her favorites are vintage bathing suits – “or costumes, to use an early term,” she explains. “I have always loved the water and swimming and when I was looking for a new class of clothing to collect (beyond any and all women and children’s garments and accessories from 1855-1865) I thought of bathing suits for the above reason, but also because they didn’t take up all that much space compared to hoop dresses, bonnets, etc., and they tend to be relatively affordable. Only antique and vintage aprons are smaller and cheaper,” she adds.

When did you start collecting? 

I started collecting bathing suits more than 20 years ago. I have slowed down quite a bit as unique bathing suits I don’t already have are increasingly rare.

"This is me in a late 19th C to very early 20th C. Cotton "bathing costume”, including the typical long black stockings, canvas soled lace-up bathing shoes, mob cap (to keep hair tidy and out of sight, but not dry) as well as a beach umbrella (most likely 1920s when suits got smaller). It is hard to see the legs of the bottom half of combination bodice and pants peaking out under the skirt 
Bathing suits of this era more suitable for splashing about in the waves, but not so great for serious swimming," says Glenna Jo Christen.

Do you have a favorite?

That is a tough choice… My earliest woman’s bathing ‘costume’ with the bloomers and skirt is near the top of my list, my 1880s men’s wool full-length bathing suit is a real rarity in my experience, but perhaps it is my “Annette Kellerman.” It was originally a “who would have worn this and where?” until I did more research and found out it was named for the first woman to swim the English Channel. It is basically a scoop neck, short sleeve, to the ankles body stocking. Very racy!

What has been your best find/deal?

Probably my earliest bathing costume that I found in an antique store in NY that was tagged at $75. It didn’t fit with anything else that was for sale at the store so when the owner noticed my interest we started talking and I told him about what it was (he had no idea it was swim wear!) He sold it to me for only $50! That is a great price for a late-19th century bathing costume.

Which others are standouts? 

Finding a set of “jams.”  I had a set the summer between junior high and high school, (the only year they were around). Jams were a two-piece swim suit with modest bikini bottoms and a matching pair of just below the knee pants with ruffles at the hem to match the ruffles at the top of the bra top. Sadly the set I found was in a small floral print on black, not the wild orange and yellow on white of my set (it was the later ‘60s).

This cotton print two-piece swim suit was probably pretty racy in the late 1940s-1950s. The bottoms have a ruffled ’skirt in the front and a very full, “bubble butt” back, but no navels to be seen yet then, Glenna Jo Christen says.

Most/least you ever paid?

The most was $50 and the least has been free or $.50 for out-of-fashion, but classic examples of 20th-century suits. Collect while things are cheap and available.

Dream finds? 

An 1860s or even 1870s bathing suit, probably a “unicorn” as they were invented in the 1860s… before that women wore shapeless shifts and men wore “one-button suits” with the button in the middle of their belly.

What can’t you resist?

A style of suit I don’t have and the price is right.

Where do you display them?

I have done an exhibit of them at the Warren Historical Society museum when I still lived there in conjunction with a program I did on the history of swimming. I also bring them out for talks I do on the topic for various organizations, museums, etc. I even narrated a fashion show of people wearing my sturdiest bathing suits for the Questers state annual conference some years ago. The conference theme was “Fun at the Lake."

Do you collect anything else?

I did collect pre-1840s soft paste (pre-bone) china cups and saucers and tea pots, but I ran out of room. I still keep my eye out for what may be another “unicorn” -- an 1860s work apron. The earliest I have is one that was dated by a textile/costume expert as 1830s. Wow! My favorite is one that came with a handwritten note stating that is was hand spun and woven by a named woman in Sweden before coming to America in 1873. I found that one in, of course, Minnesota, my home state. 

I also was collecting Civil War-era women's and children’s clothing as mentioned before. My husband Bill collected men’s clothing from the same era. My husband and I were both Civil War re-enactors for decades and we collected clothing for research for ourselves and other researchers. We also collect photographs from that era as well. 

Where do you find your treasures?

Antique stores and antique shows (we travel a lot for shows and stop at antique shops every chance we get) for most of our finds, but I have found some surprises at estate and even an occasional garage sale for more vintage items.

Advice for other collectors? 

Collect what you love. If you are a serious collector you should spend as much on reference materials as you do on your most expensive item. When starting out, be willing to buy less than perfect -- if you like the item, you can always upgrade later. Depending on what you collect, finding surprising places to display items from your collection can be fun. Remember, one is an item, two is a pair, three is a collection!

Interested in seeing your collection in our pages? If so, send a paragraph about your collection and what appeals to you about it along with a few photos of you with items in your collection to  If chosen, we will be in touch.