SIC 2342

Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing brassieres, girdles, corsets, corset accessories, and allied garments are included in this industry.

NAICS Code(s)

315212 (Women's and Girls' Cut and Sew Apparel Contractors)

315231 (Women's and Girls' Cut and Sew Lingerie, Loungewear, and Nightwear Manufacturing)

Industry Snapshot

As the twentieth century came to a close, U.S. sales of brassieres, girdles, and allied garments far exceeded apparel sales. Bra sales rose by 50 percent in the last half of the 1990s, compared with 20 percent for the apparel industry as a whole. The introduction of new lines of sports bras contributed to this increase. However, the weakened economic conditions of 2000 were reflected in the value of total lingerie and nightwear shipments, which fell from $4.07 billion to $3.68 billion. The number of industry employees declined from 20,348 to 17,651.

Background and Development

The first bra was developed in France in 1889 by the corset maker Herminie Cadolle. Designed to replace the restrictive whalebone corsets that stylish women of the time were forced to wear, the bra supported a woman's breasts without constricting her diaphragm. Americans were introduced to the bra during the 1910s, the Flapper Era, when the ideal woman's silhouette was slim and boyish. An undergarment that would flatten a woman's breasts was an ideal accompaniment to the straight-cut, form-fitting flapper dress preferred by suffragettes and stylish debutantes in Europe.

The style was brought back to America, and in 1913 New York socialite Caresse Crosby designed a brassiere out of two handkerchiefs and silk ribbons. The patent for her design was registered in 1914. Shortly thereafter, it was purchased by the Connecticut-based Warner's Company for $1,500. Warner's, previously a corset company, became one of the first American manufacturers of the bra. Other companies followed, including the now-defunct Boyshform, whose name encompassed everything the new bra was supposed to do.

Until the 1930s, the bra was more or less a one size fits all product. Because of the manly styles of the 1920s, women did not want to emphasize the size or shape of their breasts; rather, they tried to conceal them. In the Depression era, however, fashion designers began to emphasize women's feminine form once again. Warner's introduced bras with fitted cups, ranging from A (small) to D (large) size, in 1935; other manufacturers quickly followed suit.

The rages of fashion shifted all the way from the World War I boyish look epitomized by the flappers, to the very womanly figure of such pinup girls as Betty Grable and Jane Russell during World War II. Even though the fabrics used to make bras and girdles—silk, cotton, and rubber—were reserved for the war effort, designers still found ways to manufacture bras and girdles that emphasized the curvaceous look favored by sweater girls and soldier boys.

Anecdotal evidence claimed that Howard Hughes's aeronautics firm once designed a bra for Jane Russell, star of the 1943 movie classic The Outlaw. Made of metal, the bra was heavy and uncomfortable, according to Russell, who claimed that she never wore it. But the use of metal did play an important role in the next phase of bra silhouettes. In 1946, undercup wiring was introduced. This engineering feat allowed bra designers to lift the bust even more, since the underwiring added extra support.

During the 1940s, bras were being manufactured by Maidenform Inc., founded in 1922; Playtex Apparel Inc., founded in 1932; Vanity Fair Mills Inc., founded in 1899; and other smaller companies including Bestform, founded in 1923; and Bali, founded in 1927.

Women's fashion took on a retro look in the postwar 1940s and 1950s, when returning soldiers reclaimed the workplace and many women returned to the role of homemaker. With sheath dresses that emphasized every curve of a woman's figure being shown in every fashion house in Europe and America, undergarment manufacturers introduced one-piece, constructed undergarments to hold in stomachs, nip in waists, and push-up busts. Another fashion favorite, the tight-bodiced, full-skirted dress, also required undergarments to pull in the waist and emphasize the bust.

During the 1950s, bra manufacturers experimented with a new look, the push-up bra, in which the cup section was cut in half, leaving the cleavage exposed. Usually strapless, to be worn under the strapless formal dresses so popular in the 1950s, the push-up bra gave every woman who wore it an ample-looking, high-bosomed silhouette. Cone-shaped bras, which emphasized a pointy-busted look, were also popular in the 1950s, and were returned to popularity briefly by singer Madonna in the late 1980s.

While bras changed in shape during the years they were manufactured by American companies, other undergarments also changed to keep up with the current styles. The Edwardian look of the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century involved the wearing of a firm foundation garment that pulled in the waist and supported the bust. Corsets of the 1920s flattened the figure, but they were often too long for the short dresses being worn by young women. In response, manufacturers developed corselettes—shorter corsets—as well as slide-on garter belts and other, even briefer, undergarments.

The technological innovations of the 1930s turned up in undergarments. Living Lastex, one of the earliest of the stretchy, shape-holding textiles, along with narrow, dependable zippers, allowed manufacturers to sell undergarments that not only helped a woman maintain a womanly shape, but also let her move and breathe with a bit more comfort. Panty girdles that were shaped like underpants were invented in the 1930s, to be worn under then more acceptable slacks and shorts.

Dior's New Look of the late 1940s and 1950s needed new-looking undergarments. To go with the cantilevered bras required by the new silhouette, women laced themselves into guepieres, or waist cinchers—a new backlaced corset. Also at this time the Merry Widow corset, an all-in-one bra and girdle combination that was popular at the end of the nineteenth century, was reintroduced. The industry giant Warner's was among the first manufacturers to make the new Merry Widow available to the masses by introducing them in retail stores in 1952.

The pulled-in, pushed-up look of the 1950s became the pulled-apart look of the 1960s, as women's liberation swept across America. Bras were suddenly seen as harnesses rather than supports, which held women back rather than up. Women's libbers burned bras in city streets. At the Miss America pageant of 1968—the height of the women's movement—protesters threw bras, girdles, and other symbols of enslavement, such as curlers and Cosmopolitan magazine, into a garbage can. Bras were out, and many women appeared in public without undergarments.

Bra and girdle manufacturers were undoubtedly concerned about their profits shrinking in the tide of the braless revolution. They worked hard at developing natural-looking undergarments, bras that held a woman's breasts without changing their natural shape, and minimal girdles. But it was not the revolutionary bra style that forced women back into underwear. Rather, it was the concern voiced by the medical community that women who went braless for a long period of time ran the risk of stretching their breast ligaments to a point where the breast would look elongated and feel uncomfortable.

Girdle manufacturers faced a revolution even more harmful than bra burning. It was the invention of panty-hose, all-in-one stockings and panties, which hurt manufacturers. Pantyhose did not require garters, garter belts, or girdles. Women's libbers, in fact almost every woman in the country, adopted pantyhose faster than anyone could possibly have foreseen.

As women became more confident about appearing in public without the entrapments of constricting undergarments, bra and girdle manufacturers had to scramble to keep up. Luckily, however, the exercise and fitness phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s provided a new market for their wares.

Women and men throughout the United States became exercise fanatics, spurred on by such fitness gurus as Jane Fonda. Workout attire, such as sports bras, became popular. But for many women, especially those who suddenly found themselves part of the 24-hour-a-day corporate world, an exercise regimen was difficult to maintain on a regular basis. They needed help, and the bra and girdle manufacturers of America were prepared to support them with bodysuits, bras, body shapers (a synonym for girdle), and control-top underpants, all made of lycra, spandex, and other miracle synthetics.

By the late 1980s, the bra and girdle industry came almost full-circle as tastes and styles changed once again. Bras, girdles, and even corsets were popularized by performers such as Madonna, who almost single-handedly revived the bustiere industry; movies such as Dangerous Liaisons, in which the female characters were laced up in tight corsets; and couturiers who put their bras on the outside of dresses, rather than the inside.

Women's wear shipments, including bras and allied garments, were much lower than the industry average in the early 1990s. Among the factors affecting the growth of the industry were demographic trends; apparel expenses became a lower proportion of total personal expenditures for the baby-boom generation. These consumers reached the point in their lives when other expenses—mortgages and their children's college tuition, for example—began to take precedence over clothing purchases.

There was also a shift in consumer buying habits. Instead of patronizing retail stores, a majority of shoppers began making regular visits to discounters and off-price emporiums, where they could find bargains. Bra and girdle manufacturers began offering discount lines; although there might still be a small market for luxury underclothes, most women wanted to spend less on a bra than on an evening meal.

The fashion splurge of the 1980s, when expenditures on clothes practically doubled, was replaced with frugal shopping by recession-stressed consumers who frequented Kmart and Wal-Mart more often than designer boutiques and department stores. According to Standard and Poors Industry Survey (1992), not only did the spending patterns of consumers change, but their buying patterns also took a new direction.

Basic apparel like T-shirts, sweatshirts, denims, and fleece wear were in, as were moderately priced name brands like Fruit-of-the-Loom and Van Heusen. The major manufacturers of bras and girdles began producing basic styles at popular prices, and in that way they were able to keep up with this latest trend.

Manufacturers of bras and girdles also realized that women and men would occasionally splurge on undergarments. Companies such as Victoria's Secret Stores and Gossard, manufacturer of the new super-uplift bra launched in 1994, continued to have success selling pure silk and lace undergarments for romantic occasions like Valentine's Day and honeymoons. They also served a number of women who desired a "little bit of femininity" under their business clothes.

Although the value of shipments of bras and allied garments increased 13 percent between 1987 and 1988, there was a 16 percent decline in the value of its shipments the following year. A modest 2 percent gain in 1989 to 1990 was offset by a 1 percent decline in 1990 to 1991.

As a result of the more frugal spending patterns of shoppers in the early and mid-1990s, discount stores held 30 percent of the bra market by 1997; bras were the most lucrative intimate apparel item of discounters. Chain stores accounted for 19.6 percent of the market, while department stores captured 18.7 percent. Between 1990 and 1997 bra sales at department stores increased 5 percent.

Mail order sales doubled from 1990 to 1999 due, in part, to the privacy afforded by mail order purchases. Catalog companies like Victoria's Secret depended on bras to generate 5.9 percent of catalog sales. By the end of the decade, mail order chains accounted for 13.4 percent of the bra market.

As manufacturers adjusted to meet consumer demands, the bra and allied garment industry grew slowly but steadily from shipment values of $1.2 billion in 1990 to shipment values of $1.8 billion in 1995.

Current Conditions

As the twenty-first century began, increasing bra sales made this segment one of the most dynamic in the apparel industry. Although traditional styles remained the strongest seller, the sales of sports bras were growing at a fast clip. Innovation in fabrics and the creation of styles and sizes to fit individual women was one of the reasons for the increase. Nike, for instance, introduced three styles of sports bras in 1999: external molded cups for full-busted women, internal structures for medium-busted women, and sculpted bras for small-to-medium-busted women. For the first time, these bra styles were available in varying cup and rib-cage sizes, and with adjustable straps.

Discount stores continued to account for the largest percentage of sales, generating 29 percent of dollars spent. Most of the major manufacturers also created Web sites in light of the popularity of online shopping. Intimate Brands' Victoria's Secret created a stir during the 1999 Super Bowl with its online fashion show. Over a million and a half people logged on to the site.

When the economic boom of the late 1990s began to wane, the lingerie and nightwear industry, which included the bra segment, saw the value of its shipments decline to $3.68 billion, from its record high of $4.07 billion in 1999. The number of industry employees declined to 17,651 in 2000, compared to more than 26,000 in 1997.

Industry Leaders

One of the largest manufacturers of bras and related intimate apparel in the United States was New York City-based Warnaco, Inc., which markets under the Olga and Warner's label. Warnaco posted sales of $2 billion in 1998 and employed 21,000 workers. In 1996, the company acquired Lejaby, a $120 million European intimate apparel manufacturer. The acquisition allowed Warnaco to introduce its lucrative Calvin Klein underwear line in Europe. The company is headed by Linda Wachner, who purchased the company in a hostile takeover in 1986, thus becoming the first woman in the United States to buy and head a fortune 1000 company.

Playtex Apparel Inc. of Stamford, Connecticut, a subsidiary of the Sara Lee Corporation, posted sales of $400 million and employed 7,800 individuals in the latter half of the 1990s. Vanity Fair Mills Inc. of Monroeville, Alabama, a subsidiary of V.F. Corporation, had sales of $390 million and employed 8,500 people. Maidenform, Inc. posted 1998 sales of $400 million and employed 8,900 workers. Bestform Foundations Inc., a privately held company based in Long Island, New York, had annual sales of $250 million and employed 2,220 in the late 1990s.

Intimate Brands, Inc, parent company of Victoria's Secret, reported sales of $4.2 billion in 1999. Victoria's Secret products are sold in about 800 stores in North America, through its catalog, and online.

Research and Technology

Manufacturers of basic apparel, such as bras and girdles, were strong candidates for implementation of electronic data interchange (EDI) systems, which linked manufacturers with retailers via computer networks. Through these systems, retailers electronically scanned the bar codes on all merchandise as it was sold. Product data such as number, color, and size was transmitted automatically to manufacturers. EDI allowed manufacturers to plan production more efficiently and respond more quickly to consumer demand. Many such systems also provided for automatic replenishment, where manufacturers shipped replacement merchandise directly to retailers without the delay of processing paperwork. Manufacturers of basic apparel stood to gain most from EDI systems since their operations were more highly automated and less dependent upon fashion trends than other apparel manufacturers.

Environmental issues were another area of research that occupied bra and girdle manufacturers in the mid-1990s. The industry came under pressure to reduce the inks and dyes, fabric scrap, and packaging it used, which often ended up in landfills or water supplies. The industry responded by developing new production processes that reduced ink use and scrap, as well as reevaluating its packaging choices.

Consumer preferences also shifted toward natural, organically grown fabrics, so bra and girdle manufacturers increasingly tried to incorporate these materials into their garments. The increasing demand for well-fitting sports bras led to the use of high-tech fabrics such as LycraPower developed by DuPont and combinations of nylon, lycra, and polyester designed to absorb moisture.

Further Reading

Apparel Import Digest. Arlington, VA: American Apparel Manufacturers Association, 1997.

Apparel Industry Trends. Arlington, VA: American Apparel Manufacturers Association, March 1997.

Brady, Jennifer L. "Analysts: Apparel on Slow Road to Recovery." Women's Wear Daily, 13 May 1996.

Curan, Catherine. "Linda J. Wachner: Lingerie's first lady cut from strong cloth." Crain's New York Business, 27 September 1999.

DeMartini, Marilyn. "Basic training." Sporting Goods Business, 4 February 1998.

——. "Designs for Lifting: Innovations in brassiere technology improve on nature and boost sales." Time International, 31 May 1999.

——. "Victoria's Secret Seamless Bra Sews Up Sales." Women's Wear Daily, 8 May 1996.

Feitelberg, Rosemary. "Hyping Inner Actives." Women's Wear Daily, 19 April 1999.

Focus: An Economic Profile of the Apparel Industry. Arlington, VA: American Apparel Manufacturers Association, 1996.

Friedman, Arthur. "NPD: Price, Brands Drive Bra Sales." Women's Wear Daily, 5 October 1998.

Grish, Kristina. "Bra companies run with tech fabrics." Sporting Goods Business, 7 August 1997.

"Intimate Scores at Mass." Women's Wear Daily, 8 May 1996.

United States Census Bureau. "Statistics for Industries and Industry Groups: 2000." Annual Survey of Manufacturers. February 2002. Available from .

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