By Alyssa Shirley Morein, ATHM Volunteer and Writer at Final Word Consulting
Lane Bryant, a New York firm established as far back as 1904, today focuses on creating fashions for—in modern parlance—“plus size” women. However, its first origins were actually in maternity wear. The company’s founder, seamstress Lena Himmelstein Bryant, was asked by a customer to create something comfortable yet street-appropriate for her to don while expecting. Word of mouth quickly spread and Ms. Bryant soon realized that there was a high, unmet demand not just for presentable maternity clothing (thanks in part to a burgeoning market of working- and middle-class consumers who could not afford to give up paid work while pregnant), but also for inexpensive, larger-sized women’s wear.
Lane Bryant became the first company to mass-produce both of these clothing types, launching the firm on a trajectory of rapid growth. Between 1909 and 1923, annual sales grew from $50,000 to $5 million. Among other factors, the mail-order catalog was key to this success. At the turn of the 20th century, newspapers would not run ads for maternity wear, considering the topic too indelicate for print. When in 1911 Ms. Bryant was able to convince the New York Herald to run an ad for one of her maternity garments, the company’s entire stock sold out the next day. However, the taboo proved persistent. By privately and directly marketing to consumers via the mail-order catalog, Lane Bryant found a clever (not to mention lucrative) way around this problem.
Despite this, and in spite of their presumed audience, over the following decades even Lane Bryant’s own catalogs reflect an assumption of squeamishness about abundantly-proportioned female shapes, pregnant or not. Their imagery idealizes the ultra-slim female, with the illustrations on all but a few pages of the 1921 catalog featuring delicate ankles and waists and nary an ounce of excess flesh. The 1934 and ’47 catalogs have jettisoned images of heavy-looking women altogether, displaying only trim women with small busts and flat bellies. The catalogs’ language reflected this bias, as well: while the 1921 catalog was titled, “Bargains for Stout Women,” those of the later decades avoided such unflattering language, touting instead the company’s “slenderizing fashions.”
For better or worse, at the time Lane Bryant was hardly unusual in its tactics—advertisers had, by the mid-1920s, figured out that the aspirational approach sold a lot more clothes than grim reality. Though its marketing strategy continues to evolve with the culture, today, the company and its wares still meet the needs of a significant customer base.