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five bras on wire forms shaped like a woman's body that is a store display
Bras on display, Vergara, Camilo J., photographer, 2004.

By Women and For Women

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While the accomplishments of women should be celebrated year round, Women’s History Month is a good time to especially highlight notable women who may be a little less well known such as Ida Rosenthal and Sara Little Turnbull, whose names don’t immediately come to mind as do more familiar names such as Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and the women involved with the women’s suffrage movement.

Ida Rosenthal and Sara Little Turnbull share a connection to a garment most women in America, and many around the world, wear every day: the brassiere, more commonly called the bra. Rosenthal and Little Turnbull’s relationship to the bra is rooted in their involvement in engineering and fashion design which linked them to the world of business. This post will not look at the long history of the bra. For that, see titles that discuss the bra and its ancestors, the corset and stays. Rather, this post focuses on how these two women made a major impact on the development of the bra.

head and shoulders image of Ida Rosenthal
Ida Rosenthal. Evening Star. September 21, 1958.

Ida Rosenthal was born near Minsk, then part of the Russian Empire, but immigrated to the United States. In 1922, Ida and Enid Bissett along with Ida’s husband William, opened a dress shop under the name Enid Frocks Inc. in New York and started making women’s clothes. Many of their dresses included a built-in brassiere that became so popular they started making the brassieres as a stand-alone product, which became known as the Maiden Form Brassiere. Eventually, it became the focus of the company, and the threesome opened a production plant in Bayonne, New Jersey. In 1924 they trademarked the name Maiden Form and changed their name to Enid Manufacturing Co. By 1926, they were running ads for Maiden Form in the New York Times and had set up shop at 36 W. 57th. Three years later, in 1929, they had moved to an even more prestigious location at 245 5th Avenue, and the next year the company changed its name to Maiden Form Brassiere Co., Inc.

After Bissett retired from the business, Ida Rosenthal and her husband continued to run the company and eventually developed maternity bras, cup sizes, and filed numerous patents including one for the adjustable fastener. In a January 21, 1959 Evening Star “Fashion Notebook” piece, Ida Rosenthal had this to say about her business:

“For thirty-some-odd years Ida Rosenthal has been in the “engineering” business. “You see,” she told me, “it’s more a question of engineering than fashion in our business.” First comes fit then the trimmings.”

By the 1940s the company was also making other foundation garments like girdles. During World War II, the company converted its factory to supporting the war, making bras and garter belts for service women as well as parachutes and the pigeon vests (sometimes called pigeon bras) that soldiers wore to carry the pigeons that were used to send messages. After the war, the company returned to its core business in the shapewear industry, and in 1952 changed the name to Maidenform, Inc.

showing six contracts for Maidenform for mattress covers, shirts, bars insect, brassieres and garter belts
Alphabetic listing of major war supply contracts. Cumulative June 1940 through September 1945.

Theirs was a family business; their daughter Beatrice and son-in-law Joseph Coleman joined the business and made their mark in the advertising department, particularly with their innovative I dreamed…. campaign. In fact, this campaign was so well known that a Maidenform ad was featured in an episode of Mad Men. After William died, Ida took over running the business. According to a “Fashion Notebook” column in the November 8, 1960 Evening Star, she was no figurehead:

“Ida Rosenthal who stands 4-11 in heels hardly looks like a business tycoon. That’s exactly what FORTUNE and TIME magazine classify her. Her title clearly states she is chairman of the board and treasurer of a business, which has the business figures under control.”

Rosenthal died in 1973 but her company continued to be a leader in the shapewear industry. For many years, it continued to be family run, first by her son-in-law, then her daughter, and lastly her daughter’s son-in-law. In 2005, it went public and changed its name to Maidenform Brands. It is now part of Hainesbrands Inc..

As for Sara Little Turnbull, her story was a little different. Turnbull was born Sara Finkelstein in 1917, the child of Russian immigrant parents. After graduating from college, she worked at House Beautiful where she wrote the “Girl with a Future” column among other assignments. She went on to become an influential product designer known for working with many companies including 3M. It is her work with 3M where her connection to the bra began as detailed in Jake Rosen’s May 22, 2020 Mental Floss article, “Remembering Sara Little Turnbull, Whose Bra Cup Design Became the N95 mask.”

Sara’s interest in facial masks was spurred after spending time in hospitals helping ailing family members. Seeing a need for better masks, Sara drew on her work with 3M to design a disposable, molded non-woven surgical mask which eventually became the N95 mask, an interesting connection to the role facial coverings have played over the last two years. To further explore how her work with 3M fit into the history of the bra, look at the description in Patent 3,064,329 for Molded nonwoven fabric articles:

“This invention relates to new and useful molded nonwoven fabric articles, and to the process of making. It has particularly noteworthy value in the manufacture of shaped articles of wearing apparel, such as brassiere cups.”

Sara worked as an independent consultant for many years and in 1971 founded the Sara Little Turnbull Center for Design Institute. After her death, her legacy continues through the Sara Little Turnbull Foundation.

shows the entrance of the lingerie department with a female mannequin at the door
Lingerie department at Best’s epartment store in Abington, Pennsylvania., 1957. Gottscho-Schleisner Collection.

Bras have remained a staple in most women’s wardrobes over the years, in spite of societal changes including the bra burning associated with feminist activists some years ago. New fabrics, designs, and technology have moved this item from just functional to fun and fashionable. Bras and lingerie are big business, and Ida Rosenthal and Sara Little Turnbull are an important part of that history.

If you want to do your own research, the Library has some sources that may help. If you are interested in the shapewear industry today, Business Reference offers guides on the fashion industry, researching companies, and researching industries. If you are doing any historical research, the fashion guide describes some general resources, but we also have a specific Doing Historical Company Research guide. In addition, there are also industry related titles like Bowman’s Corset and Brassiere Trade as well as directories such as Women’s Wear Daily’s Lingerie, Loungewear, Corset & Brassiere and its successor, Women’s Wear Daily’s Lingerie, Loungewear & Foundations Directory. I also recommend Chronicling America for company research, as it is particularly good for viewing advertisements, such as these for corsets.

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