You rarely hear the words “love” and “company” in the same sentence.
But that’s what I heard over and over when I visited the Maidenform Retirees at their monthly meeting in late October. Attendance was down on this cold, rainy afternoon. Usually at least 25 show up; today only 16, but there was a time when the senior center next to St. Andrew church was packed.
As Bras Go, so Goes the Nation
On Sept. 25, 1929, Maidenform acquired the property at 154 Avenue E, now known as Silklofts. It was the company’s main manufacturing plant until 1990 when production moved south, and the building became corporate headquarters. The company occupied the building until 2007, when it was put up for sale. The site has been approved as a historic preservation project by the National Parks Service.
Maidenform lore is on view at Silklofts—framed ads, a guest book, and an album of photographs. On a mannequin is a vintage bra that sold for $15 back in the day. “That’s about $500 in today’s money,” marvels Scott Frezzo manager of Silklofts. The original Maidenform sign has been restored on the wall facing Avenue E.
The company made bras, girdles, and swimsuits. Between 1949 and 1969, it was famous for its legendary “I Dreamed” ads, such as, “I dreamed I barged down the Nile in my Maidenform Bra.”
The company was founded by seamstress Ida Rosenthal, Enid Bissett, and Ida’s husband, William Rosenthal. Bissett and the Rosenthal rebelled against the flapper styles of the 1920s, best exemplified by Downton Abbey’s Mary Crawley.
Fast forward a quarter century to another popular TV series, Mad Men, and actress Christina Hendricks, who embodied (pun intended) the Maidenform ideal—a form-fitting dress on a voluptuous chassis that could be supported only by a Maidenform foundation garment.
Where’s Barney Stock when you need him?
Still selling bras, hosiery, and other women’s clothes on Broadway. I asked Barney’s son, owner Mel Stock, about the Maidenform aesthetic.
“We were one of their original customers 92 years ago,” Stock says. “Bras at that time were plain cotton in white, black, or beige, and they didn’t have as many padded bras.”
He says a Maidenform bra called the Chansonette was the most famous model, selling for $2. Introduced in 1949, it was known as the bullet bra.
Maidenform was reportedly responsible for inventing cup sizes based on ounces: A-cup, 8 ounces, all the way up to the 27-ounce D cup.
Now Stock sells the Hanes line, which makes sports bras.
Things have changed. When the U.S. won the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the iconic image was of Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt, exposing her three-pack abs—and a black sports bra.
Friends for Life
Back at the monthly meeting, Secretary Jean Perrucci oversees a raffle drawing from a plastic beach pail. Winner Florence Murphy takes home a book of stamps and pronounces them “useful.”
This group still sees the value of doing things the old-fashioned way, like sending a letter through the U.S. Postal Service.
Florence, who was involved in pricing the garments, informs me that everyone here was doing administrative work; no one was working on the line. She surmises that the factory workers have since died
During World War II, Maidenform manufactured parachutes and pigeon vests, made of bra-like materials and designed for paratroopers to strap to their chests. After landing in a war zone, the paratrooper undid his pigeon “bra,” attached a message to a carrier pigeon, and sent the pigeon to home base.
Prisoners of war were also housed at the Maidenform shipping facility, according to Perrucci, who worked in the credit department and in customer service for 34 years.
Cathy Golding, who was a customer service supervisor and now treasurer of the Retirees, says, “It was a lovely, compassionate company. If you were ill you could take time off and still have a job.”
Barbara Goldberg was supervisor of the ticket office. Her job was to give tickets to pieceworkers, which showed how many garments to send to the floor. Her first job out of high school, she stayed for 43 years.
Diane Kaminski, at 64, is one of the younger members. A senior cost accountant, she stayed for 46 years, starting on June 17, 1968, the day after she graduated from Bayonne High School and leaving on April 30, 2014, when the company went bankrupt and Hanes took over, moving the business to Iselin.
Joe LaBruno was a tool-and-dye worker. His job at the meeting was to put out the coffee and apple turnovers.
Chet Gurbisz, who worked in the shipping department for 40 years, says he likes coming to the meetings to see old friends.
“We enjoyed going to work,” sums up Florence Murphy. “We were great, friendly people.”—BLP