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  • The Id Goes Shopping in Its Maidenform Bra:Navigating Gender Spheres in the Postwar “Dreams” Campaign
  • Astrid Van den Bossche (bio)

I’m the chiefand the siren too–the most incendiary figure in this five-alarm dream!Dangerous, yes…but beautifully under control,I’m lifted to new heightsof excitement bymy dream of a Maidenform.

– “I dreamed I was a fireman in my Maidenform bra”, 1953

From 1949 until 1969, Maidenform—by then already one of the leading bra companies in the U.S.—ran an advertising campaign that was not only notable for its longevity, but also for the ripples it sent through the fabric of cultured society. Whether it was its candid use of semi-nudity, the copy’s Freudian wish-fulfillment implications, the hint of female emancipation, or the compounding effect of all of the above, Maidenform caused a stir that propelled the brand into the cultural consciousness of post-WWII generations. The timing of the campaign is key to understanding its impact: striking at the heart of postwar culture, it coincided not only with a return to restrictive gender norms, echoed in fashion via the popularity of Dior’s New Look, but also with the popular perception of the consumer goods boom as unprecedented and unnatural, which concurred with an all time high suspicion of advertising as mind control.

“I dreamed I […] in my Maidenform bra,” read the campaign’s tagline, captioning a young woman engaging in said activity whilst proudly displaying her bra. With more than 100 variations appearing in more than 15 national publications, the ads gave the Maidenform woman a varied and sometimes fantastical life: She took strolls in Manito Park, worked as a lady editor, escaped on trips to Venice and Paris, saw herself cut in half, fancied herself a work of art (sometimes a Medieval Maiden, sometimes Venus de Milo), and experienced the exhilaration of winning political elections (Figure 1). Nothing seemed impossible for the Maidenform woman, who engaged in activities deemed appropriately feminine (e.g., sitting on sidewalk cafés and shopping), as well as venturing into a traditionally masculine domain (e.g., extinguishing fires and acting as ambassadors). Nothing was impossible, because, after all, it was just a dream.

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Figure 1.

“I dreamed I won the election in my Maidenform bra,” 1952.

In one of the very few articles that discuss the campaign at length, Barbara J. Coleman asserts the ads “disregarded or parodied women’s unrealistic occupational aspirations,”i suggesting the depicted aspirations were, to their audience, not only unattainable, but also dismissible as passing fancies. She continues: “At first glance, Maidenform’s ad suggested liberation from the confines of the house, but its condescending portrayal of a woman in a grocery store wearing only her brassiere implied the opposite.”ii Partial female nudity, then, was enough to establish a derisory attitude towards women and the value of their occupations. Written in 1995, this damning account of the campaign is still one of the few descriptions longer than a mention-in-passing. It implies that Maidenform’s only noteworthy footprint was its ridicule of women, its success indicative of nothing more than the consumers’ happy participation in their subjugation.

Considering the campaign’s longevity and cultural embedment, such readings should raise red flags of oversimplification. They fail to engage with the myriad of contradicting, challenging, and controvertible texts that may shed a more nuanced light on the campaign’s workings. While it is sometimes difficult to expose structural oppression, it is equally important to recognize subversive thoughts within their context. Where Coleman believes “both male and female viewers find themselves complicit with Maidenform and laughing at a woman wearing only her underwear at the grocery store,” and a little further rhetorically questions, “whose sexual fantasy is represented,”iii the campaign’s rippling effects suggest a more complex picture than the universalized male gaze criticism first proposed by Laura Mulvey and ubiquitous in the criticism of lingerie advertising.

Pornography is equally never far from the conversation. Paul Rutherford writes: “Much later the campaign was remembered as the vehicle of a kind of proto-feminist message, even though such a...