Vintage Carowinds: Fashions reflect the decades

cbolling@charlotteobserver.comJuly 31, 2013 

Forty years and four owners ago, Carowinds opened its doors with great fanfare and 1970s fashions.

Through the years, employees have seen their hemlines rise and fall, fabrics go from sweat-inducing polyester to sweat-wicking fiber, and collars shrink and spread.

Jerry Helms, 61, has witnessed every uniform change. A 40-year veteran of Carowinds, he has worked at the park since it opened, rising from the ranks of summer security guard during college to his current full-year role as vice president of operations.

Helms’ first uniform, which he wore as a security guard during the park’s first summer: 100 percent polyester gray pants with a navy blue stripe and suspenders, topped with a navy Nehru jacket (a fitted coat with a mandarin collar).

“Those (uniforms) worked in the spring, but in the summer, First Aid spent more time picking up security guards lying in flower beds than anything else,” Helms said laughing.

Park directors quickly tweaked the guards’ uniforms, replacing them with white polyester shirts, royal blue pants and hard hats. They still weren’t the most fetching outfits, but they didn’t keep Helms from catching the eye of a brunette balloon seller, Irene, in the summer of 1974. They celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary in May.

When Charlotte businessman E. Pat Hall opened the park in 1973, Carowinds was heavily themed, with employees in different areas wearing different uniforms, such as “Pirate Island,” “Indian Thicket” and “Contemporary Carolina.”

Two years later, the park was sold to a national company for $16 million and uniforms became more standardized, but still colorful.

Helms is passionate about the park, which he says was the first employer of its kind to bring together young workers from all over the region.

“You did it because you loved it, and the uniform was part of the experience,” he said. “I did giggle a couple of times.”

Carowinds public relations manager Julie Whitted unearthed stacks of old photos while preparing for the park’s 40th anniversary festivities, and shared these gems.

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