Peggy Olson’s Got Nothing On The Real Women Behind Maidenform’s ‘I Dreamed…’ Ads

by BUST Magazine

Museum of Femoribilia: By Lynn Peril

The ad was bold to the point of shocking for 1949. A woman wearing nothing above her waist but a bra strode cheerfully through a pen-and-ink background of floating foodstuffs and odd vegetation. “I dreamed I went shopping in my Maidenform bra,” said the copy. “Asleep…but it all seemed so real.” In the months and years that followed, the women in Maidenform’s long-running “I Dreamed” ad campaign did any number of things in their bras. They strolled, danced (Charleston, ballet, and square), skied, rode a roller coaster, and went to the opera. More interestingly, they dreamed of careers that few women pursued in the 1950s and ’60s (albeit many of these were preceded by the belittling term, “lady”): ambassador, editor, private eye, fireman, toreador. In a 1952 ad, the bra-clad model even dreamed she “won the election.” Draped in a ticker-tape sash reading “People Select,” with congratulatory telegrams, fireworks, and the Capitol hovering behind her, it’s clear that she’s won national office.

Not surprisingly, the campaign was dreamed up by a trio of ad women: Mary Fillius, Kitty D’Alessio, and Kay Daly. They brainstormed themes, then pitched them to Maidenform, where founder Ida Rosenthal and her daughter Beatrice Coleman made the final selections. (They may have been inspired by a 1945 ad for Joseph Magnin stores. The spot featured a drawing of a woman pouring tea in her bra and girdle, and read “Last night, I dreamed I had nothing on but my black Gossard [lingerie].”)

femoribilia dish fmt copy

The campaign was a screaming success. Maidenform’s sales increased from 14 million to over 43 million between 1949 and 1963. The public also responded enthusiastically when, beginning in 1955, the company ran contests soliciting new dream ideas, with up to 20,000 in prizes at stake. (The winner from 1957: “I dreamed I danced the hornpipe with Sinbad the Sailor.”)

One reason for the campaign’s popularity was that the ads, while titillating, were not salacious. The models were sexy but wholesome, and the copy employed gentle puns and double-entendres (“I dreamed I was a real dish”). A 1962 ad in which a model gently grasps the horn of a very large bovine (“I took the bull by the horns”) may have been the raciest of the lot. It helped, too, that Maidenform’s dream world was populated exclusively by women; if a male figure appeared, he was relegated to the background and didn’t gawk.

Also appealing was the way the women in the ads projected confidence. Psychologist turned advertising consultant Carol Moog noted that the women in the ads were exhibitionistic about their capabilities as well as their bodies, and invited female consumers “to step brazenly into dreams of power and influence.” But art historian Barbara J. Coleman disagreed, writing that the ads “rather cruelly” mocked women’s aspirations, because the careers depicted were not actually available to them.

The ads were finally retired in 1969. On the cusp of the women’s liberation movement, women wanted to pursue not dreams of power, but the real thing.


Photographed by Linda Xiao
Prop Stylist: Michelle Longo


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