Wednesday, March 4, 2015

B-cups and pigeon vests: Maidenform in Bayonne

Research often makes an interesting story even more fascinating. Case in point: pigeon bras.

Pigeon bras? You certainly knew that birds have breasts (so to speak) but so much so that they need support? Well... not really.

It all starts with a bit of reading I was doing for Women's History Month, where I stumbled on the story of Ida Cohen Rosenthal. A Russian immigrant who arrived in Hoboken in 1904, Ida soon married, bought a Singer sewing machine and went into business for herself as a dressmaker. Within 15 years, she and her husband William were operating a factory with 20 workers, but their time in Hoboken would be cut short due to snow. It wasn't that the white stuff was preventing their workers from getting to the shop, or curtailing their deliveries. What infuriated the Rosenthals was the fact they had to manage it. City statutes required property owners to clear snow from the public sidewalks in front of their buildings, and the couple apparently didn't want to be responsible for that task, sizable though their shop might be. Rather than hiring people to shovel their walk, they moved across the river, decamping to Washington Heights.

Their business prospering, the Rosenthals partnered with a friend, Enid Bisset, in a new Manhattan dressmaking venture, Enid Frocks. It was the 1920s, and the flapper look was in style, with its waifish, boylike appearance. To fit into the vogue fashion, women would bind their bosoms with plain strips of cloth to approximate a flat chest, despite their natural dimensions. Ida and Enid went one step beyond and created a bandeau that hooked in the back and cupped a woman's natural curves. Their dresses appealed to the more womanly customer, who didn't like the restrictive feeling of the fashion of the day. Including a brassiere with the purchase of an Enid Frocks dress, Ida and Enid apparently didn't initially recognize the bonanza they had created. Their customers would have to show them.

And, indeed, they did: after buying an Enid Frocks dress and accompanying bra, women would return to buy more undergarments, which the women accommodatingly sold them for a dollar apiece. Ida created the brand name "Maiden Form" to differentiate the womanly bras from the boyish look of the flapper fashion, and the undergarment business took off, despite warnings from her brothers, who told her to stick with dresses. In fact, it was the bra, not the dress, that kept the company afloat after the stock market crash of 1929, when competing dressmakers went out of business. Already, the success of the business had led the Rosenthals back to New Jersey when Maiden Form outgrew its New York factory. According to some sources, it eventually became one of the largest employers in Bayonne, doing well throughout the Great Depression.

Which leads us to... pigeon bras. Maiden Form, like virtually every manufacturer in the United States, had to fight tooth and nail to get raw materials during World War II. If it wasn't needed for the war effort, it wasn't going to get to the factory. Ida, in her own spunky style, convinced government officials that her business was absolutely essential. Wouldn't women serving in the WACs and WAVES face fatigue without the right support from a Maiden Form bra? (Ironically, Jane Russell would famously support this concept for another manufacturer in commercials for the 18 hour bra.) Parts of the business also converted to parachute making, while yet another group at the Bayonne factory turned out pigeon vests. Sewn from bra fabric and attached to a paratrooper's gear, the vests enclosed a carrier pigeon, which the paratrooper would release with a message once he'd landed in enemy territory. Soldiers being who they are, the vests quickly became known as bras.

The challenge of wartime shortages overcome, Ida brought her company into the late 40s and 50s with a series of innovative advertising campaigns that kept Maiden Form in the vanguard of women's undergarments. William had already made substantial contributions to design, including standardized cup sizes to ensure women could find a reliable fit, time after time. By 1960, the company's name had evolved to Maidenform, its founder still active in the business at an age when most folks would have retired. The business had expanded into Europe and Latin America, its manufacturing moving to southern states and Puerto Rico. Ida continued to work until suffering a stroke at the age of 80, leaving Maidenform in the capable hands of her daughter.

Today, Maidenform is part of Hanes Brands and retains offices in Iselin, its former Bayonne factory now converted into chic apartments. You have to wonder how many people know the unique way the small city supported the troops in World War II... or, for that matter, millions of American women. I do know that the next time I drive down Avenue E, I'll give a small salute and a knowing grin to the pigeons hanging out in front of the brick building at number 154.

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