It was May 1942 and America had just joined World War II when Elna Larsen opened a dress shop on Copenhagen Drive in Solvang, where she sold traditional Danish clothes she made for children, as well as some adults, using patterns she brought over from her native Denmark.
Her store windows showcased the colorfully trimmed bright red and blue dresses, wrapped with white aprons that laced with ribbon at the top over white frilly blouses, along with the boys’ jumpers held up by suspenders over short-sleeved white shirts.
Naturally, she also made the traditional hats to match and knitted sweaters just like the ones worn in Denmark.
“She was especially known for making bobbin lace,” said Esther Jacobsen Bates, executive director of the Elverhøj Museum of History & Art in Solvang. “She was technically trained in Denmark for that.”
Beyond those traditional costumes, Larsen also made contemporary clothing that kept her customers attired in the popular fashions of the day.
But her Danish costumes were the big draw, becoming so popular she had to hire several seamstresses to help her make them.
Eventually, Larsen retired and sold her shop, but she continued to sew and gave lace-making demonstrations at the Elverhøj until she was in her 90s. She died in Solvang in 2006 at the age of 98.
Today, Elna’s Dress Shop still sits in the same location at 1673 Copenhagen Drive, and one window is still devoted to displaying the Danish costumes made by hand using the same patterns Larsen brought from the Old Country.
“And it’s been all women — forever,” said Sue Manning, who with husband Bob bought the shop in 2004 after it had passed through a number of owners. “Women have successfully run this store for 75 years.
“The name has never changed, and the store is in the same place,” she continued. “A couple of businesses have been here longer, but not with the same name and not in the same place.
“I knew Elna, you know,” she added. “She called me ‘Super Sue.’ Do you know, we had to interview with her before she’d let us buy the store. And she didn’t even own it anymore. But she owned the building.
“She was just an absolutely lovely lady. She would come in and sit. We’d introduce her, and she thought she was in heaven.”
Two photographs of Larsen hang in a place of honor above the front door of the shop.
Although Manning was really trained as a schoolteacher, she has been in the retail business for 40 years.
In fact, she worked in Elna’s for a year under one of the former owners before opening her own dress shop — Sue’s Place — in Lompoc. Two years ago, she closed that shop after 18 years to concentrate on Elna’s.
Now she runs the store with the help of her sister, Carol Herrin, and employees DeeDee Asmann and Regina Lingl, and she has a cadre of four seamstresses who produce the basic shells for the dresses and jumpers as well as the hats.
“When they come in, they’re just plain,” Manning said of the costumes. “We buy the fabric, the trim, the ribbon and we put on the grommets. We have a special machine that was made for us that puts the grommets on.
“The typical colors are red and royal blue, but we have the lighter colors for the little blondes,” she added. “We no longer make the green ones.”
Manning’s husband, Bob, might be considered the shop’s token male, but he works behind the scenes at their home office making the price tickets, handling the payroll and paying the bills.
The Danish draw
Even though the small shop is jam-packed with colorful contemporary fashions — dresses, skirts, blouses, pants, purses, wallets, belts, dark glasses, jewelry — the Danish costumes are still the store’s No. 1 seller, making that team of seamstresses necessary.
“They pay the rent,” Manning said of the costumes. “It’s amazing to me. One grandma came in and bought five. Pink ones.”
Many of the buyers are tourists, she said, but a lot of locals also buy them for the annual Danish Days celebration in September.
“We never know who’s going to buy them,” Herrin added.
“There are a lot of people who come here once a year, and they hit this store,” Manning continued. “Then they go down to (Solvang Shoe Store) and have their pictures taken with the big red shoe.
“And we have our ladies who come in once a week,” she added.
About that time, one of the regulars walked in — Arlene Brown. Manning greeted her like a long-lost friend.
“These are my favorite friends here,” Brown said.
“And we love having you here,” Manning replied.
“I’m their model,” Brown joked as she headed off to try on some contemporary fashions that just arrived.
“We really appreciate our loyal Solvang customers,” Manning continued. “They keep us going when it’s not tourist season, although tourist season is pretty much year-round now.
“There’s certain people who like certain things. We do a lot of special orders.”
Manning said the internet hasn’t hurt her business the way it has so many others.
“We’re busier all the time,” she said. “But we’re very lucky to be in a tourist town, and we have a very good reputation.”
Manning will celebrate the store’s 75th anniversary with food, drink and prize drawings from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, May 18 — the day Larsen opened the doors to Elna’s.
“Lots of the local merchants are supplying us with different things,” she said. “We’ll have sandwiches, breakfast, chocolate, Champagne. Our vendors are supplying us with free merchandise for the drawings. We’ll have drawings all day for a percentage off purchases — 10 to 50 percent — and we’ll be giving away five $75 gift certificates.”
Manning is also scheduled to receive proclamations from Gov. Jerry Brown, Solvang Mayor Jim Richardson, 3rd District County Supervisor Joan Hartmann and 24th District U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal.
The celebration will wind up with a Solvang Chamber of Commerce mixer.
Manning said she’s hoping a lot of her old customers will show up for the celebration.