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Exclusive Excerpt from 'The Family,' by David Laskin

[David Laskin's The Family, a Best Book of the Month pick for October, goes on sale today. In 1922, Laskin's grandmother, Ida Rosenthal, known as Itel, founded the Maidenform Bra Company with her husband and their partner, former vaudevillian Enid Bissett. The following paragraphs describe the moment when the partners took a "breast flattener" bra and, with a few snips and a bit of elastic, transformed it into the first Maidenform.]

29_ItelRosenthal_R2Day in, day out, the shop door of the stone-clad, vaguely French Renaissance building at 36 West Fifty-seventh Street would swing open and another lovely customer--patroness, Mrs. Bissett like to say--breezed in. Rich, of course, fashionable, bobbed, cloche-hatted, displaying the requisite inches of ankle and lower calf. The ideal Enid Frocks type. Alas, Itel knew at a glance that, when the dress was done, neither she nor the new patroness would be one 100 percent happy. The problem was the patroness’s bust. The problem, to be precise, was that she had a bust. Soft yet firm, full and swelling, round, smooth, perfectly symmetrical, the perfumed essence of American femininity made flesh--this lovely pair of breasts was doomed to be squashed into submission by the dictates of 1920s fashion. The flapper style du jour called for dresses to drop with barely a bulge or curve from neck to knee, and in order to achieve this sticklike silhouette a woman wore a flattener--“a towel with hooks in the back,” as Itel described it. These hideous mammary-mashers were marketed under the trade name Boyish Form, which pretty much said it all. Itel knew from sad experience that no Enid Frock ever looked right when worn over a Boyish Form bandeau. It was a crime and shame for a chic well-endowed lady to spend upward of three hundred dollars, a fortune in those days, for her Enid Frock and come away with a less-than-perfect fit because of the cursed flattener. “It was a very sad story,” Itel sighed. “Our cheapest dress sold for a hundred and a quarter, and it just didn’t fit right. Women were told to look like their brothers--that was just not possible. Nature made women with a bosom, so nature thought it was important. Why argue with nature?”

Mrs. Bissett had a brainstorm. She grabbed a Boyish Form bandeau, sliced it down the middle of the front with a pair of scissors, took the two edges and shirred each one to a small bridge of elastic so that they formed a pair of slightly bulging pockets. William was summoned to take a look. “If you want to wear something like that,” he harrumphed, “at least let me make you a nice one.” William was an artist, a male artist, and by the time he was done, it was very nice indeed. Satin shoulder straps were added; the pockets--the primordial cups--were fashioned of fine ivory-pink cotton net trimmed with silk rosebuds in pink and jade; the elastic center piece was shiny and striated; three tiny hooks were affixed to the back. Mrs. Bissett christened the garment Maiden Form to distinguish it from the hateful Boyish Form bandeau.

LaskinItel saw at once that her frocks fit better with a Maiden Form brassiere sewn into the bust or worn separately underneath, but it took the partners a while to realize what a hot commodity they had on their hands. At first every woman who purchased an Enid Frock got a Maiden Form bra for free. When the ladies came back marveling at how good the bit of mesh and elastic made them look and feel, Itel offered to whip one up custom for twenty-five to fifty dollars a pop. The dress business kept booming--bras were just a sideline, a novelty item that the seamstresses ran off in their spare time. It was Broadway that made Maiden Form a star.

Broadway had been lit up with energy and hot jazzy new music since the Great War ended, and it was ablaze the year the bra was born. Chorus girls who strutted on stage half naked in George White’s Scandals at the Globe Theater or Ziegfield Follies of 1922 at the New Amsterdam had no qualms about trying out a slinky new undergarment that made them look sexy, even if it broke with fashion. “The acting trade were the first customers because they were brave enough to uplift,” Moses (Moe) Rosenthal, William’s brother and later the company’s general manager, said. Where brave busty show girls led, ordinary busty women were sure to follow. Transgression was in the air in 1922. Women had won the right to vote two years earlier; they smoked in public and no one batted an eye (Itel herself put away four packs a day); they scandalized their mothers with their clothes, dances, drinks (illegal as of January 1919), and love affairs. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned was a best seller that year, and he and Zelda were the toast of the town. Nowhere was the spirit of transgression headier and more pungent than on New York’s Forty-second Street. What better locale to kick up a lingerie revolution? Joe Bissett hit every specialty shop between Forty-second and Fifth-ninth streets. He placed Maiden Form bras and racy little counter cards touting their virtues in the Astor Shop, in the Hotel Astor, and the Regina Shop, abutting the renowned Palace Theater vaudeville house. If a manager was reluctant to place an order, Joe got one of his chorine pals to sashay into the shop, demand a Maiden Form, and storm out in disgust when told they didn’t carry them. The next day a salesman came calling. “It was an extreme product but was accepted there [the theater district],” said one of the early salesmen.

LaskinGetting it accepted elsewhere required greater powers of persuasion. “I would take it out, and when I showed them this little bit of bra, all hell would break loose,” recalled Jack Zizmor, who became a top salesman. “If it were the husband, he would call to his wife, ‘Come over here and see what this crazy guy is trying to sell me!’ They laughed and they ridiculed us, and said, ‘This is a fly-by-night thing. It will die out next week, next month, next year.’” They didn’t laugh for long.

The Maiden Form bra was the quintessence of the 1920s—fun, novel, vaguely risqué, easy to mass produce, perfectly promotable, seemingly frivolous but in fact eminently practical and instantly indispensable. No one had heard of a brassiere in 1920. By 1924, all the fashionable women had to have one. The daughter and granddaughter of scribes had stumbled on one of the pure products of America.

[Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © David Laskin, 2013. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Laskin Family.]


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