Lane Bryant’s Beginnings

I was so excited when I found this old swimsuit at a local thrift. It’s a great example of how swimsuits began to change in the 1950s by improving fabrics – adding nylon and elastic bands to help the material stretch and dry faster. Also very typical of Lane Bryant swimwear of this era, the suit is in a dark, slenderizing color, offering modest coverage and a swim dress style. Like most swimwear of the era, the bra top is lined and has some subtle, side boning for shaping and was obviously designed far more for posing like a pin-up rather than swimming like a fish.

What’s even cooler than finding the swimsuit was finding out more about the long and fascinating history of Lane Byrant, which really began way back when Lena Himmelstein, a 16-year old, Lithuanian immigrant arrived in New York in 1895. Landing on the shores of NYC, Lena was unhappy to discover that she was arriving to an arranged marriage. Remarkably, she refused the marriage and found a job sewing lingerie instead.

A few years later, Lena chose to marry an immigrant Russian jeweler by the name of David Bryant, but it was a short-lived marriage when David died just after the birth of their son. Lena soon found herself back to sewing out of her apartment.

Her skills began to gain more and more attention, especially with regard to maternity street clothes which had become more and more of a necessity when turn-of-the-century lower and middle class working women had to be out earning a wage and had no source for appropriate maternity clothing.

Why, you ask? Because this was a time when it went against all the social mores of the day for a “lady in waiting” to appear in public.

But like herself, Lena knew her female customers had no choice, so she began to focus her energies on this untapped market. By 1904, she was able to open her first shop on 5th Avenue under the name of Lane Bryant – a spelling mistake the bank manager made on the loan papers and Lena chose not to correct.

She obviously had what she was looking for.

In 1911, continuing to buck the longstanding puritanical system of confining women, Lena drew even more attention to her business by being the very first business in the city to talk the New York Herald into accepting an ad for a maternity garment.

Highly taboo.

People were outraged.

Yet her entire stock of the maternity dress shown in the ad sold out the very next day, – and even though the disapproval of pregnancies in public persisted for years, Lane Bryant’s catalogue business began to boom, allowing pregnant women a place to shop in private.

By 1923, Lane Bryant had grown from $50,000 in annual sales to $5 million, much of which came from her mail order business. Lane Bryant had also begun attracting another ignored customer base – plus-sized women – who would soon out-demand the maternity line.

Lane Bryant was also a pioneer in business and industry, being among the first American employers to offer complete benefit packages, including health insurance and profit sharing.

The only disappointing fact I unearthed was that even though Lane Bryant’s great success in business was due largely to its plus-sized clientele, it did little to fight against industry pressure and persisted in depicting slim and trim models in its catalogues.

Both the exterior fabric and interior cotton bra and bloomers are in very good condition. The suit is a generous 12/14 with stretch to the material and measures: chest – 17” (with a b/c cup); waist – 16”; and hips – 20”. And it’s available at my Etsy Shop: Channeling Nonna.

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