Vintage Lingerie Designer Biography: Helen Hunt Bencker

Helen Hunt Bencker was born in Leetsdale, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Carnegie Tech, with a BS in painting and illustration, she moved with her family to Boston. In Boston, she began illustrating books for Little, Brown and Company. (Documentation produces one confirmed title: Railroad West, by Cornelia Meigs (1937).)

At this time, Bencker was also “modeling charicatures” in clay — where she was noticed by then head of Harvard Sculpture, John Wilson, and hired as his assistant.

According to Among American Designers Of Today – Noted For Work in Field Of Lingerie (an article published in the Schenectady Gazette, July 18, 1952, where the photo below came from), Bencker left that Harvard post after a year because sculpting “did not offer her the scope of expression and the variety she found in working with textiles” which “satisfied her love of color, as well as form.”

She began work for Carter’s “known until [then] for ‘plain drawers and bloomers’ and found “instant success” upgrading Carter’s with high end lingerie. So much so, Bencker then left Carter’s to take over at Colura while the (unnamed) owner “went off to the wars.” Here’s an article on Bencker visiting Jamaica, from The Gleaner, February 10, 1948. While there to paint, she is still employed at Colura.

Based on the ephemera trail in newspapers, I’m guessing the 1948 trip to Jamaica, signaled the start of a transition between lingerie lines for Bencker. She’s still mentioned in this 1950 ad for the Colura Felice slip…

But a vintage lingerie ad from 1951 featuring Colura lingerie has no mention of Bencker.

The 1952 article then says, but still gives no dates, that Helen Hunt Bencker was “singled out to collaborate” on Elsa Schiaparelli‘s launch of an American line. (Perhaps the years are not mentioned because Schiaparelli’s business was suffering; she would close her business in 1954. So name drop and move along!)

The article then simply, and again without date, states that Bencker “now exclusively designs for Laros lingerie.”

“Lingerie was a natural for me,” says Helen. “I turned to it instinctively, because I felt that my broad experience with modeling the human form could be projected to arraying it with a beauty I felt sadly lacking in underwear. Here was an opportunity to instill a sense of figure flattery that designers of outer-wear expressed to perfection, but which was rarely if ever achieved in the garments worn beneath. I saw a chance to dramatize line for its own pure beauty.”

A 1952 ad for the basque bodice slip, part of the Fiesta line by Laros. Note how the ad not only mentions Helen, but includes a small portrait of the designer.

An ad for the “Stripe-Me-Gay” line of “Flanelette,” 1952. “Gay as a Maypole when designed by Helen Hunt Bencker for Laros.”

Vintage Laros lingerie ad prominently featuring Bencker as the designer of the “Side-Step Slip” and the “Flamenco” petticoat!

Here’s a 1952 newspaper fashion feature on the Flamenco:

A 1952 ad featuring Bencker designs for the Laros “Rhumba” line of lingerie.

The article below, Beauty Tops In Lingerie This Season (Tuscon Daily Citizen, 1953), specifically mentions “a concert of Carib singers” as the inspiration for the spring ’53 Laros Lingerie line. Likely that 1948 Jamaican trip, right?

And in 1953, another vintage Laros ad featuring “Carousel” lingerie and the designer herself.

Laros would soon become, by the mid 1950s, part of Hollywood-Maxwell, leaving even less about Bencker to be found…

In 1957, she married artist and author Claus Hoie — but the lingerie designer kept working/promoting herself under her professional name, appearing in industry notes and announcements as having been signed to Rodgers Lingerie (then a division of Genesco) as “fashion coordinator.”  And, in 1963, Bencker is mentioned in this fashion article titled Bye, Bye Bathrobe, as designing for Formwear.

Sometime in the 1960s, she and her husband moved to East Hampton, away from careers in commercial art and into fine art. According to Claus, “We fed off each other, but had an agreement: We didn’t offer free criticism. It had to be invited.”

It was around this time that “Mrs. Hoie” took a course in collage with East End painter, Alexander Russo. It “opened,” she said, her life as an artist:

“In collage,” Mrs. Hoie once said, “my imagination is stimulated by frayed wisps of silks, colored thread, gold leaf, the translucent quality of tissue paper, the jagged edges of torn rice paper. I have no set idea in my mind when I start. I let the material lead me… building outward from the center…”

Here’s an example of the artist’s work, a collage signed under the name Helen Hoie (via Skinner).

At this point in time, sadly and shamefully, Helen Hunt Bencker Hoie is hardly even a footnote in her husband’s life.

Art databases rarely have her name spelled correctly, if they have her listed at all. However, she had her own art shows and exhibitions, was on the board of directors for Guild Hall, and she and her husband started The Helen and Claus Hoie Charitable Foundation.

Is she a documented part of lingerie design history? Forget about it.

Well, at least not until this blog post.

Helen Hunt Bencker Hoie died in 2000, at the age of 89. I hope to scrounge up more about her to post. (I do obsess, you know.) If you can offer any information, photos, etc., please do let me know!

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