Brassieres, Girdles, and Allied Garments

SIC 2342

Industry report:

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

Industry Snapshot

In the early years of the twenty-first century, 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 grew at a fast pace. Innovation in fabrics and the creation of styles and sizes to fit individual women was one of the reasons cited for the increase. Further, this industry seemed to weather the 2005 quota eliminations with more ease than other apparel industries.

By the late 2000s, annual revenues in the industry were around $476.3 million, according to Dun and Bradstreet's 2009 Industry Reports. New Jersey and New York were by far the two top states in terms of revenue, with $203.3 million and $162.4 million, respectively, in sales. Approximately 5,706 workers were employed by 185 establishments in this segment of the apparel industry, and 85 percent of the firms employed fewer than 25 people. Employment was expected to continue dropping into the mid-2010s.

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 Flapper era of the 1910s, when the ideal woman's silhouette was slim and boyish. An undergarment that would flatten a woman's breasts was a perfect accompaniment to the straight-cut, form-fitting flapper dress preferred by suffragettes and stylish debutantes in Europe.

The style was introduced to the United States, and in 1913, New York socialite Caresse Crosby, whose real name was Mary Phelps-Jacobs, 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 Brothers Corset Company for $1,500. Warner's, previously a corset company, became one of the first U.S. 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, trying instead to conceal them. During the Depression, however, fashion designers began once again to emphasize women's feminine form. Warner's introduced bras with fitted cups, ranging from A (small) to D (large) size, in 1935, and other manufacturers quickly followed suit.

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

Anecdotal evidence claims 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. However, 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 underwire added extra support.

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

Women's fashion adopted a retro look in the post-war 1940s and 1950s, when returning soldiers reclaimed the workplace and many women returned to the role of homemaker. With sheath dresses, emphasizing every curve of a woman's figure, being shown in every fashion house in Europe and the United States, undergarment manufacturers introduced one-piece, constructed undergarments to hold in stomachs, nip in waists, and push up breasts. 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 and designed to be worn under the popular strapless formal dresses of 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, also were popular in the 1950s and were returned to popularity briefly by pop singer Madonna in the late 1980s.

While bras changed in shape during the years they were manufactured by U.S. companies, other undergarments also changed to keep up with the styles. The Edwardian look of the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century involved wearing 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 appeared 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, and were to be worn under slacks and shorts that became increasingly acceptable.

Dior's New Look of the late 1940s and 1950s needed new-looking undergarments. Women laced themselves into guepieres, or waist cinchers, which were back-laced corsets that went with the cantilevered bras required by the new silhouette. The Merry Widow corset, an all-in-one bra and girdle combination that was popular at the end of the nineteenth century, was reintroduced at this time. Industry giant Warner's was among the first manufacturers to make the 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 the United States. Bras were suddenly seen as harnesses that held women back rather than as supports. Women's libbers burned bras in city streets. At the Miss America pageant of 1968 during the height of the women's movement, protesters threw bras, girdles, and other symbols of enslavement, such as curlers and Cosmopolitan magazines, 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 during the braless revolution. They worked hard to develop natural-looking undergarments, bras that held a woman's breasts without changing their natural shape, and minimal girdles. However, it was not the revolutionary bra style that forced women back into underwear but rather 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 with the invention of pantyhose, all-in-one stockings and panties. Pantyhose did not require garters, garter belts, or girdles. Women's libbers, along with almost every woman in the country, adopted pantyhose faster than anyone could possibly have predicted.

As women became more confident about appearing in public without the entrapments of constricting undergarments, bra and girdle manufacturers scrambled 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. Nevertheless, 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 the United States 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 once again changed. 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 in tight corsets; and couturiers who put their bras on the outside of dresses, rather than the inside.

Shipments of women's wear, 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 as 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 such as mortgages and their children's college tuition began to take precedence over clothing purchases.

There also was a shift in consumer buying habits. Instead of patronizing retail stores, a majority of shoppers began to make regular visits to discounters and off-price shops where they could find bargains. Bra and girdle manufacturers began to offer discount lines. Although a small market for luxury underclothes continued, 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. By the early 1990s, 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 to produce basic styles at popular prices in an effort 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 and Gossard, which introduced the super-uplift bra 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 shipment values of bras and allied garments increased 13 percent between 1987 and 1988, there was a 16 percent decline the following year. A modest 2 percent gain from 1989 to 1990 was offset by a 1 percent decline between 1990 and 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, and 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.

In 2006, department stores and discount stores continued to account for the largest percentage of sales, generating 31 percent and 30 percent of sales, respectively. Most of the major manufacturers also created Web sites to take advantage of the popularity of online shopping. Limited Brands Inc.'s (formerly Intimate Brands Inc.) Victoria's Secret created a stir during the 1999 Super Bowl when it debuted its online fashion show, which has since also been available on network and cable television. More than 1.5 million people logged on to the site.

When the economic boom of the late 1990s began to wane, the lingerie and nightwear industry, including the bra segment, realized a decline in the value of its shipments to $3.68 billion from a 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.

Direct sales on the Internet and by mail order doubled from 1990 to 1999 and remained a popular option due in part to the privacy afforded by mail order purchases. Victoria's Secret, for example, experienced 16 percent growth in 2006 to $1.42 billion in sales. By the end of the decade, direct sales chains accounted for 10 percent of the intimate apparel/sleepwear market. Other online stores competing for their share of this market included Newport News, Spiegel, figleaves.com, and barenecessities.com.

Intimate apparel sales began to recover from a slump at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with 2003 sales up 4.5 percent. Leading the industry were panty sales, which soared 10.1 percent, driven by high-margin items such as lace boy shorts, thongs, and retro tap pants. Brassiere sales increased a more modest 3.1 percent. Total sales were $8.5 billion for the year. Helping sales were three newer styles of sports bras: 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.

However, prices of underwear, nightwear, sportswear, and accessories fell 4.1 percent in March 2007 from the previous year. In 2005, U.S. apparel sales increased to $181 billion, with women's intimate apparel accounting for $9.6 billion of that total. Meanwhile, the bra category featured very low import penetration.

Nonetheless, on January 1, 2005, the entire fabric and apparel industry suffered a major setback when all previous import quotas were removed for World Trade Organization (WTO) member countries, causing thousands of job losses in the United States. By then, the United States was importing more than 50 percent of all apparel sold domestically. In order to compensate for the influx of imported products, domestic manufacturers implemented several fundamental changes to meet the challenge, including consolidation, outsourcing, and domestic technological development. There were more mergers and acquisitions in 2003 than there had been in decades. Jones Apparel, Liz Claiborne, and Kellwood all acquired smaller niche businesses to expand their offerings with a disclosed value of all merger deals exceeding $3.5 billion.

The U.S. textile industry petitioned the U.S. government to invoke the World Trade Organization (WTO) safeguard mechanism intended to limit damages. The ensuing November 2005 agreement with China, the country most affected by the quota removal, limited imports for three years. When the agreement ended in 2008, the National Committee of Textile Organizations and other industry organizations lobbied Congress for a new import-monitoring program on Chinese products. Although officials held meetings on the issue in mid-2009, no agreement was reached.

Current Conditions

The global lingerie market rose by only 2.6 percent between 2004 and 2007. However, growth in developed countries, led by India, averaged 8.1 percent. Of the total $29.9 billion in lingerie sales worldwide in 2007, bras accounted for 56 percent, briefs for 32 percent, and daywear and shapewear for 12 percent. Together, Western Europe and North America accounted for 65 percent of the market, and in 2008, just-style.com predicted that the global market would grow 12.2 percent between 2007 and 2014 to reach approximately $33.6 billion.

The American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) reported that in 2007 U.S. manufacturers produced about 32 million bras, bralettes, and bandeaux worth $260.3 million. As was the case in most other segments of the U.S. apparel industry, production was significantly less than in previous years. For example, in 2006, the AAFA reported that 108.3 million garments were produced in this category with a value of $841.3 million. Girdle and corset production also declined, from 13.1 million garments in 2006 to 8.2 million in 2007; value of production decreased from $52.5 million to $30.6 million. Imports of bras and related undergarments made from manmade fibers fell less than 1 percent during the same time period; still, more than 40.5 billion of such garments were shipped into the United States from overseas in 2007. The number of cotton bras imported increased almost 8 percent to 9.1 billion garments. Overall, the value of imported bras reached nearly $2 billion in 2007.

During the slow economy of the late 2000s, the lingerie industry continued to forge ahead. According to a March 2009 WWD article, "Despite the troubled economy, new entrepreneurs are beginning to see an opportunity in specialty lingerie retailing." New start-ups in the form of specialty boutiques and direct sales were cropping up around the country. Online merchandising was also growing. For example, in 2007, victoriasecret.com brought in $1.2 billion; smaller retailers included fredricksofhollywood.com with $60 million, barenecessities.com with $37 million, and Jockey.com with $18.7 million. Some of the new ventures catered to an underserved market. Robin Horman in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, told WWD that she planned to open a lingerie shop because the bra sizes at other stores, such as Victoria's Secret and Target, are "very limited," especially for those women with cup sizes of D and up. Other examples of online specialty lingerie stores included Abbyroseonline.com, which specialized in solution items such as partial camis for low-cut necklines, and Missandpluslingerie.com, which offered plus-size lingerie from size 1X to 6X.

Industry Leaders

One of the largest manufacturers of bras and related intimate apparel in the United States was Hanesbrands Inc. Located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the former division of Sara Lee Corp. was officially spun off in 2006 and reported sales of $4.2 billion and 45,200 employees in fiscal year 2008. Brands included Playtex, Bali, Just My Size, Barely There, and Wonderbra. Another major player in the industry was New York City-based Warnaco Group Inc., which marketed the Olga, Warner's, and Body Nancy Ganz/Bodyslimmers labels, with $2.1 billion in fiscal year 2008 sales and 5,200 employees. In 1996, the company had 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 was headed by Linda Wachner, who purchased it in a hostile takeover in 1986, becoming the first woman in the United States to buy and head a Fortune 1000 company. However, in June 2001 the company was forced to file for bankruptcy and Wachner was relieved of her duties in November 2001.

Other industry leaders included Vanity Fair Brands of Monroeville, Alabama, a subsidiary of Fruit of the Loom (sold in early 2007 by V.F. Corp.) and Maidenform Brands, Inc. of Iselin, New Jersey, which was established in the 1920s when Ida and William Rosenthal invented the cup-style bra. Columbus, Ohio-based Limited Brands Inc. (formed by a merger with the former Intimate Brands Inc. in 2002) was the parent company of Victoria's Secret and reported total sales of $9.0 billion in fiscal year 2009. Victoria's Secret products were sold in more than 1,000 stores throughout the United States and through catalogs as well as online.

Research and Technology

Environmental issues were a important area of research considered by bra and girdle manufacturers. 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, and reevaluated it packaging choices.

Consumer preferences shifted toward natural, organically grown fabrics, so bra and girdle manufacturers increasingly tried to incorporate these materials into their garments. The growing 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.

As the first decade of the twenty-first century neared a close, researchers and manufacturers continued to look for ways to make bras more comfortable and more beneficial to a women's health. For example, a professor at the University of Bolton in the United Kingdom was working on the creation of a "smart bra" that could detect early signs of breast cancer. Using microwaves and the technology of thermography, the bra would sense spot temperature changes, which could suggest the increase of blood flow to a tumor. Although the product was still in development, researchers expected a prototype by as early as 2010.

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