The Bra That Fit the 20th Century

One of the most recognizable names in bras derives from one of the most recognizable campaigns in advertising, ” I Dreamed I was . .[fill in the blank].. in My Maidenform Bra.”

Maidenform, Inc. began at Enid Frocks, a small dress shop in New York City owned by Enid Bissett. Ida Rosenthal was a Russian Jewish immigrant and seamstress at Enid’s shop, and in 1922 Ida and Enid decided that the fit and appearance of their custom-made dresses would be enhanced if improvements were made to the bandeaux style bras popular at the time.

As the Archives Center of the Smithsonian Institute states:

They gathered the bandeaux in the middle in a design modification that provided more support in a manner they believed enhanced, rather than downplayed, a woman’s natural figure. Ida’s husband, William, added straps and further refined the style. The called their bras “Maidenform”, in counterpoint to the “Boyish Form” brand then in vogue. Initially, the bras were given away with each dress they sold. As the bras gained popularity they began selling them, and eventually the bras became so popular they stopped making dresses altogether and shifted to full-scale brassiere manufacturing. The first Maidenform plant opened in Bayonne, NJ in 1925. After World War II, the company began marketing heavily in Europe and Latin America.

Maidenform’s advertising campaigns were enormously successful, and generated controversy as well as praise. The “I Dreamed” campaign was launched in 1949 by Norman B. Norman at Norman, Craig & Kummel and continued for 20 years making it one of the longest running campaigns in the history of advertising. The Maidenform campaign profited from placing bra-clad women in odd situations. At the time showing bras on women was not allowed on TV, so these ads kept women (and many adolescent boys) watching the pages of Life, Look and The New York Times Magazine).

The advertisements featured models in everyday or fantastic situations, elaborately costumed but wearing only a Maidenform bra above the waist. This campaign was followed by the “Maidenform Woman” campaign which was credited with boosting sales by 200 percent in some stores. The “Dares to Dream” campaign played off the “I Dreamed” tagline in 1984, and in 1987, the “Celebrity” campaign began. The “Celebrity” ads were notable for the absence of women in lingerie; instead, well-known male actors discussed their feelings about women and lingerie in print and commercial advertisements. The tone of the advertising shifted in 1992 with a series of ads called “The Women’s Advocacy” campaign.

For an excellent annotated listing and visual examples of all the ads go here (and don’t be put off by the layout of the page).

6 thoughts on “The Bra That Fit the 20th Century

  1. mike

    Why don’t you identify Enid Bissett’s national origin and religion the way you do Ida Rosenthal’s (Russian, Jewish). 
    Is there some subtle reason I’m missing?

  2. Cindy

    I love this Maidenform ad campaign. I am interning for an intimate apparel company now that blends vintage design and details with their modern, art-influenced aesthetic. The comapny is called The Lake and Stars and their S/S 2011 ad campaign is reminiscent of this Maidenform one in that both are metaphorically using the the woman’s dream or (in TLAS campaign) spiritual message and contrasting it with the sexuality of a woman wearing a bra, or intimate apparel. Here is a link to the capmaign of which I am referring (click on the first image that comes up) :

  3. Ellen Shapiro

    I loved this campaign as a girl and couldn’t wait for my mother’s McCall’s magazine to arrive in the mailbox. It was my first introduction to beautiful page design and photography (art directed by Otto Storch). I studied this campaign as well as the “Modess Because” ads — neither product I was ready for, alas, but coveted needing both. The star dotting the ‘i’ in ‘maidenform’ is a nice touch.

  4. Susan D.

    I love this posting. I am old enough to remember my mother and aunts wearing those types of bras. They would even iron them after washing to smooth the wrinkles in the stiff cotton and stitching. The image with the bull is most interesting–doubtless a real shoot with the young lady remaining very composed next to this one ton beast. Take note where the retoucher eliminated the heavy rope that was attached to that nose ring to keep the bull under control. Thank goodness for innovation–Photoshop to do these things more easily–AND modern lycra fabrics to make the bras softer and more comfy!

  5. kati

    These are great!! Interesting advertising for the models to be wearing bras in everyday situations….Must have been exciting, although this is more eye-catching then the ads for bras of today.
    They went too far this year with padding. We have Dream Angels bras…You can wear pillows now. In the movie The Social Network, the comment Mark made about his ex girlfriend wearing bras from Victoria secret, put some girls on edge….