Enid Bissett, Ida Rosenthal & William Rosenthal
Co-founders of Maidenform Inc.
Victoria wouldn't have a secret and Hollywood wouldn't have Frederick if it weren't for the efforts of Enid Bissett and Ida and William Rosenthal. These three dressmaking entrepreneurs invented the first uplift brassiere and spawned today's multibillion-dollar brassiere industry. Ironically enough, they didn't set out to become bra manufacturers and stumbled onto their fortune almost by accident.
The story of the modern brassiere begins in the early 1920s, when Bissett and Ida Rosenthal opened a custom dress shop called Enid Frocks on New York's prestigious West 57th Street. At the time, the stick-thin flapper look was all the rage, and women wore vests called "boyish forms" to make them look more flat chested. Bissett, who was proud of her curves, felt the look was extremely unflattering to women's bodies.
Both partners believed that a dress fit better over a natural bust line rather than a flat chest, so Bissett restructured the boyish form vest to have two cups separated by a center piece of elastic. The idea worked.in execution, but it was far short of attractive. So Rosenthal showed the seminal design to her husband, William, also a dressmaker, who transformed Bissett's creation into a garment shaped to support the natural contours of the bust. Because the garment uplifted and enhanced the shape of the bust, the Rosenthals dubbed it "the Maiden Form Brassiere" in 1922 and began building it into each dress they made.
Then the unexpected happened. Clients began requesting separate brassieres, prompting Bissett and Rosenthal to give away a bonus garment with every dress sold. To meet increasing demand for the revolutionary undergarment, the Rosenthals and Bissett formed Enid Manufacturing Co. in 1925 to produce the Maiden Form Brassiere exclusively.
As the demand continued to rise, the trio saw an opportunity to cash in on an untapped market. In 1929, Bissett and Rosenthal closed their dress shop, renamed the Enid Manufacturing Co. the Maiden Form Brassiere Co. to capitalize on the success of the Maiden Form brand name, and moved their manufacturing operation to Bayonne, New Jersey.
At this time, Bissett retired from the business, but Ida stayed on to manage the sales and finances, while William took care of the design and manufacturing. To create a greater demand for their product, the fledgling business became the first intimate-apparel company to advertise, with ads appearing in newspapers, magazines, on buses, billboards, local window and store-counter displays and even over the radio. The strategy worked a little too well, however, as demand for the Maiden Form brassieres soon exceeded the company's ability to manufacture them.
In the early days, each seamstress produced two or three brassieres a day. But by the 1930s, the company was forced to find a way to increase productivity. William's sister, Masha Hammer, organized an ingenious production line, the first in the women's apparel industry, where one seamstress sewed backs, another made straps, and a third sewed together the brassiere cups. This innovation worked so well that by the end of the decade, the company had sold more than a million Maiden Form brassieres.
The mom-and-pop shop became a true family business in 1938 when the Rosenthal's daughter, Beatrice Rosenthal Coleman, joined the company. In a 1987 Working Woman interview, Coleman recalled her entrance into the family business. "I was studying to be a teacher at the time, but deep down I knew I really didn't want to teach. So when my mother asked me to come into the business, I was overjoyed. I'd always admired my mother. She was an entrepreneur at a time when entrepreneurial women were few and far between."
Coleman's first job at Maiden Form was on the production line. "My mother wanted me to learn the business from the ground up," Coleman explained. Though not necessarily a raging success with a needle-she often had to rip the stitches out of the bra cups she was sewing and start over-Coleman did exhibit management potential and quickly moved from production to the sorting department, and finally into advertising.
Maiden Form experienced its first sales slump just as the United States entered World War II. Nylon was requisitioned for the war, so the company was forced to substitute other fabrics. To ride out the slump, Maiden Form turned its facilities over to the war effort, producing brassieres for members of the Women's Army Corps, parachutes for the US Army Air Forces and vests for messenger pigeons. Despite the limited wartime brassiere production, Coleman continued pushing the company's product through various media to "safeguard the value and goodwill of Maiden Form's name."
The effort paid off, and at the end of the war Maiden Form soon regained its place at the head of the intimate-apparel market. It was also at this time that Beatrice's husband, Dr. Joseph Coleman, decided to give up his medical practice and join his wife's family's company. Beatrice told him that if he joined, she would quit. Her decision wasn't made out of malice. "That was the way things were then," she explains. "When the boys came home, the girls went home." But Joseph refused to join if his wife left, so she agreed to stay. A few years later, Joseph was directing the company's advertising while Beatrice, by then the mother of two daughters, worked part time in the design department.
By the late 1950s, Ida Rosenthal had taken over as company president after the death of her husband, and Maiden Form was experiencing its most successful sales years ever, thanks to the introduction of Chansonette. The most popular brassiere ever produced by Maiden Form, this broadcloth basic sold more than 90 million units in more than 100 countries from its introduction in 1949 through 1978.
Ida Rosenthal remained at the helm of the company she'd founded until 1959, when she became CEO and handed over the presidency to Joseph Coleman. In 1960, the company changed its name to Maidenform Inc. Joseph Coleman remained president until his death in 1968, at which time Beatrice succeeded him. A feisty entrepreneur, Ida went to her office every day until she suffered a stroke in 1966. In March 1973, at the age of 87, Ida passed away.
Beatrice would remain president of Maidenform for the next 22 years. After her death in 1990, her son-in-law, Robert A. Brawer, was named president and CEO. Maidenform remained a family-run business until 1998 when Paul Mischinski was named CEO and Maurice Reznik was named president.
Citing herself as living proof that one good idea can start a family business and fund a family fortune, shortly before her death Beatrice Coleman counseled women to start their own businesses, saying: "If you really want to make it, become an entrepreneur. If you're an entrepreneur, you're in charge of your own destiny."
Bound For Success
The modern uplift bra isn't the only first credited to lingerie pioneer William Rosenthal. Throughout the 1930s he continued to experiment with new and different brassiere designs, expanding Maidenform Inc.'s product line with the first nursing brassiere, the first long-line brassiere (a brassiere that extends down to cover the midriff to create a more shapely figure) and the first full-figured bra. He also introduced the Variation brassiere. Designed for the average-busted figure (rather than for larger figures, as most brassieres were back then), it became the first Maidenform style to reach $1 million in sales, with a retail price of $1 each.
Keep In Touch
Unlike many companies that got started in the early 1900s only to flounder before the end of the century, Maidenform Inc. has been able to remain one of the largest and most well-known lingerie manufacturers throughout the world by keeping in touch with its customer base.
In the early 1970s, Beatrice Rosenthal Coleman recognized that the U.S. population of people under the age of 25 was increasing. To adjust to this rapidly growing demographic, she created new brassieres designed for a young audience. This new line, called Precious Little, was produced in a variety of colors to appeal to this younger, fashion-conscious consumer.
As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, the forward-looking Coleman set her sights on a larger market by introducing color-coordinated intimate apparel under the name Sweet Nothings. Sold through in-store boutiques called Sweet Shoppes, the collection quickly became the most popular and profitable in Maidenform history.