For women everywhere, Maidenform and Spanx aren't just household names, they're practically synonymous with getting dressed. What women may not realize is that both companies were founded by women who were tired of wrestling with undergarments designed by men with little understanding of women's bodies. But Ida Cohen Rosenthal and Sara Blakely did more than just design quality products, they broke barriers as women entrepreneurs, building wildly successful companies through creativity, tenacity, and visionary leadership.
Bras. Oprah tells us we’re wearing the wrong size, the woman at Bloomingdales humiliates us in the dressing room for our stretched-out, graying versions. Allegedly burned by fed-up feminists in the 1970s; eagerly adopted by flat-chested tweens looking for a quick path to adulthood: bras are so fraught, so polarizing, and often so burdensome to contemporary women that it’s almost laughable to imagine them as a feminist invention. And yet, the story of the modern bra is one of women’s entrepreneurship and ingenuity.
As an 18-year-old Russian immigrant in Hoboken, New Jersey, Ida Cohen Rosenthal supported herself by working as a dressmaker. In 1921, while the flapper craze was sweeping America, she set up shop in Manhattan with a partner, Enid Bissett. If you’ve ever heard your grandmother yell “lift and separate!” you have Ida to thank. Her bras were all about separation and uplift, two concepts unfamiliar to women accustomed to smashing down their chests with corsets and binders. Though popular fashion called for a flat-chested silhouette, the two women began making brassieres with individual cups to flatter fuller figures, like Ida’s own. This was quite a departure from the breast-crushing bands available at the time, and demand for these new, modern bras exploded.
In business, Ida was the marketing and management genius, and her husband William, a trained sculptor, was the creative force. He devised standard cup sizes and she managed Maidenform’s sales, finances, and manufacturing. She was a tough negotiator and she knew how to build customer loyalty—attributes commonly considered masculine in the 1940s and 50s, when her company was changing how women shopped and dressed. After William’s death, Ida would become Maidenform’s president and later chair the company’s board of directors. In the final years of her remarkable life, she left women with this advice: “If you really want to make it, become an entrepreneur. Then you are in charge of your own destiny.”
Sara Blakely was always an entrepreneur at heart. As the legend goes, she was selling fax machines door-to-door when she came up with the idea that would change women’s underwear for good. Blakely was getting ready for a party when she realized she didn’t have the right undergarment to wear with white pants and open-toed shoes. She cut the feet off of control-top pantyhose, and decided that she was on to something. Like Ida Cohen Rosenthal, Sara Blakely started the career that would make her a household name and build her fortune with an idea and a pair of scissors.
Blakely took an embarrassing, stigmatized piece of clothing—your grandma’s girdle—and made it young, popular, and seemingly indispensable to women everywhere. Your sister wears Spanx. Your mother wears Spanx. Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Garner wear Spanx. Women of all shapes, sizes, and ages find great appeal in looking a little bit smoother and concealing the lines created by bras and panties. And that’s what’s so inviting about Spanx: rather than tell women they look terrible, Blakely tells women, “Hey, white pants are REALLY difficult to wear. Spanx will help you feel good in them.”
Sara Blakely is the world's youngest self-made female billionaire. She continues to diversify her brand with jeans, leggings, bras, swimsuits, and active wear. And through it all, she has been a champion of women in business: Spanx has a 6:1 female to male ratio, and has given more that $17.5 million to women’s organizations. In 2006, Blakely founded the Sara Blakely Foundation to educate and train female entrepreneurs. It’s almost unbelievable to think that when Blakely came on the scene in 2000, the hosiery industry was male-dominated and uncertain about the idea of a woman selling shapewear! Ida Cohen Rosenthal and Sara Blakely taught skeptics that women are every bit as business-minded as men, and did that by selling women’s product to women. Today, Spanx is, as Forbes reported, “what Kleenex is to tissues: a brand that stands for the category.”
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Undergarment Entrepreneurs." (Viewed on October 23, 2019) <https://jwa.org/powercouples/cohen-rosenthal-blakely>.