Petal Bursts, Pigeon Breasts Or Cookies: An Uplifting History Of The WonderBra

One urban myth has it that Wonderbra ads have contributed to car accidents. There is an old archived BBC article that references the notion.

While push-up bra billboards may or may not have distracted drivers into fender benders throughout the years, they have certainly turned heads.

In fact, according to a CBC poll in 2007, the WonderBra is the fifth most important Canadian invention. It ranks above the pacemaker! And according to a 2008 survey of 3,000 UK women WonderBra’s push-up bra is the greatest fashion innovation of all time.

A lot of WonderBra’s original appeal had to do with an innovative brassiere design that provided a uniquely supportive lift not yet seen in the undergarment world. It came as most good ideas come — not for want but for need. The pattern was designed by adding diagonally cut fabric between the strap and cup. It had been a handy alternative to elastic at a time when the material was not available to the public due to war-time rations.

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The original patent for the proto “Wonder-Bra,” as New Yorker Israel Pilot called it before Canadian Lady Corsets’ founder Moe Nadler partnered up with him. (US Patent 2245413)

The original patent used in the design and manufacture of the WonderBra was created by a New Yorker named Israel Pilot. His patent was filed in March 1940 and was granted in 1941. But he had coined the term Wonder-Bra (with a dash) in 1935. When Nadler, a Montreal entrepreneur for Canadian Lady Corset Company, learned about his designs he decided he had to partner with Pilot. The first designs had labels that read “Wonder-Bra by d’Amour.” Back in Canada, the dash was dropped to become WonderBra. When it was later reintroduced to the US market in 1994 the name became Wonderbra, with a lowercase “b.”

In 1939 Nadler had founded the Canadian Lady Corset Company, which specialized in – you guessed it – corsets and other shapewear like girdles. It was a humble sewing shop in what is now considered the Plateau Montreal. The shop was located above a tavern by the corner of Mont-Royal and St. Laurent. But with the metal shortages during the war and women beginning to enter the workforce, corsets were falling out of vogue. The fashion-conscious of North America and Europe were trying on brassieres instead.

The first Canadian WonderBra brassieres were sold for between $1.00 and $1.50 in 1939. That is the equivalent of between $17 and $26 Canadian dollars today (early 2020). The WonderBra trademark was intended to be a mid-range undergarment collection with lines that focused primarily on comfort and practicality.

From 1939 to 1955, Canadian Lady Corset Company sold more than just bras with the WonderBra brand. There were also swimsuits, girdles, panties and slips. Canadian Lady Corset also created secondary Wonderbra lines that targeted consumers of varying socioeconomic categories. While the Canadian side of WonderBra was growing and diversifying, the Pilot-led US arm of the Wonderbra brand, “L’Amour,” stagnated. This could have been due to Nadler’s greater business acumen or because the US market had many more established lingerie competitors than Canada.

WonderBra’s top seller at the time was the Mischief style. Rigid and satin, it had four-section cups.

Then came along something a bit sharper.

In 1952, knowing that there would need to be difficult negotiations with Pilot when the patent was set to expire in 1955, Canadian Lady launched its biggest WonderBra line yet – Petal Burst.

A vintage Petal Burst bra package. It is a well-supported bullet bra with sturdy seams in a starburst along the cups and the signature WonderBra diagonal-cut strap supports in lieu of elastic.

The Petal Burst line was the first WonderBra bullet bra, with a pointed bust. It was inspired by the Christian Dior line called “New Look” and followed the lead of a few other American brands. The bullet bra style had a nifty little slogan at the time to describe its main objective: “Lift and separate.”

By 1957, the Petal Burst accounted for half the bra sales sold by Canadian Lady.

When Pilot’s patent expired in 1955, it coincided with some distinct changes in undergarment fashions and traditional gender norms. These resulted in younger women turning away from girdles and looking instead for lighter intimates. Nadler knew he had to fight hard to negotiate a deal with Pilot to continue making the WonderBra. While Pilot asked that Canadian Lady stop using his designs and return his original patterns, Nadler ignored his request. Instead, he was able to acquire the rights to the WonderBra Canadian, European and Asian trademarks.

“Lift and separate.”

By the 1960s, Canadian Lady was mainly referred to as the WonderBra company. That is how sought-after and well-known these supportive bras were in Canada. In 1960, Nadler traveled to Europe to get inspiration for new garment designs. This is where the wonderBra style called “Pigeonnant” came to fruition. That translates to “pigeon-breasted” in French.

It was a half push-up bra. Almost there.

However, in 1964, a Canadian designer, Louise Poirier, created a new kind of bra for the company that became a wearable symbol of feminine freedom. WonderBra released Poirier’s plunging push-up bra style at a time when just less than half of Canadian women would still wear a girdle.

Poirier’s design is similar to the patterns WonderBra still makes to this day.

A WonderBra TV commercial.

That “Dream Lift Model 1300” push up design is composed of 54 specific design elements, such as: three-part cup construction, precision-angled back, underwire cups, removable pads (known as “cookies”), Β“supportive gate backΒ” design, rigid straps and of course lots and lots of lace.

Instead of “lift and separate,” this bra would “lift and unite.”

The push-up bra was born!

It became a best-selling brassiere in Canada. And soon, it would take over the world.

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This is a WonderBra Model 1300 push-up bra manufactured between 1965 and 1970. Montreal’s McCord Museum has it as part of its collection to highlight the role of WonderBra in Canadian fashion history. Wonderbra / Β© McCord Museum, Montreal

Throughout the 60s and 70s, the Wonderbra trademark was being exported and licensed internationally.

In 1968, the company went through a lot of major changes. It first changed its name to Canadian Lady-Canadelle and then it was sold to Consolidated Foods, which is now known as the Sara Lee Corporation. Later, the company dropped the “Canadian Lady” part and became just Canadelle but kept the “WonderBra” name for its line of sexy or fashionable lingerie.

As well, Canadelle branched out and started selling pantyhose with the Wonderbra tag, licensing a company called Giltex which was also a Canadian manufacturer. As the Wonderbra line grew and grew so did its parent company. Sara Lee soon acquired Giltex in the 80s. Canadelle had also partnered with Gossard, which was then acquired by Sara Lee.

WonderBra launched a line of pantyhose in partnership with Canadian hosiery manufacturer Giltex. Later, in the 80s, Giltex was aquired by the parent company.

In the 90s, Wonderbra started selling to a US and UK market again for the first time since 1964. In the states, the suggested selling price was $26 US at the time.

Around 1991, the company Gossard had licenses to sell the Wonderbra lines which would expire in January 1994. While Gossard executives planned to renew their license and had an option to do so under the existing agreement, they decided to negotiate better terms. But during the negotiations, suddenly the plunge style bra became very, very, unexpectedly popular in the UK. British Vogue, Vivienne Westwood and Gaultier may have contributed to this fast-paced trend for padded bras and corsetry. The license was not renewed and instead Gossard launched its own “UltraBra” push-up bra.

In Europe, a lingerie retail race began between Gossard and the Canadelle Wonderbra line to see who could outsell who on push-up bras. Additionally, in 1994, Victoria’s Secret had just launched its “Miracle Bra.” With competitive marketing pushes, solid advertising campaigns and a racy “sex sells” approach, this friendly competition between Gossard and Canadelle (and Victoria’s Secret) saw push-up bra advertisements and sales increase to new heights both in Europe and then in the US.

(This may have been the root of the British “car accidents caused by bra ad billboards” myth.)

Gossard’s UltraBra was similar to WonderBra but somewhat different.

According to a 1994 news release issued by Canadelle, a Wonderbra consisted of five distinct design elements:

  1. Three-part cup construction: Each cup is made from three separate pieces, providing a more natural silhouette.
  2. Precision angled back and underwire cups: This is the key to Wonderbra’s unique, deep dramatic cleavage “Plunge-and-Push effect”.
  3. Removable, contoured pads: The pads, called “cookies” provide maximum lift and volume. They are contoured, and can be removed to even out the shape of the bustline.
  4. Back support: The back of the Wonderbra gives maximum uplift and control; its original gateback and full power netting keeps the bra cups in place and helps achieve maximum cleavage.
  5. Adjustable non-stretch straps: Keeps garments in place; convertible straps allow bra to be changed to halter top or low-back styling

1994 was also the year a WonderBra advertisement was released featuring Czech model Eva Herzigova looking down and smiling at (or to) her breasts, along with the double entendre slogan: “Hello boys.”

It was this poster that was rumoured to have “stopped traffic,” or resulted in car crashes.

This 1994 WonderBra advertisement is the subject of an urban myth and a few news articles that mention how much of a distraction it has been for drivers.

That ad actually came in 10th place in a 1999 Poster of the Century contest which was judged by a jury of advertising creative staff for the trade magazine Campaign.

Over the next decade, push-up bras became more and more popular. More competition showed up with new designs. WonderBra was sold in department stores, pharmacies and grocery stores worldwide.

In 2006, Sara Lee sold its intimate brands. Part of that sale resulted in Canadelle becoming a subsidiary of Hanes Brands Inc. They have the rights now to sell and distribute apparel under the WonderBra trademark to most of the world.

Just last year, in 2019, WonderBra celebrated its 80th anniversary of ungirding and uplifting, and of being a household name brand that is synonymous with the actual product. Like Kleenex, Kotex and Pam, WonderBra is used even to this day to describe bras, any bras, even by other companies.

It has been a curvy road for the wonderful WonderBra and a far stretch away from the little sewing shop housed above a tavern in the Plateau Montreal. Now, WonderBra is a symbol of feminist emancipation, a part of the cultural lexicon and the foundational support – undergarments, if you will – of Canadian fashion history.