There are few stores left where a woman of a certain age whisks the customer into a curtained room, whips out a tape measure to confidently measure the bust, and then, voila, returns with the perfect bra. Since at least 1947, Mildred’s has been one of a handful of go-to places offering “everything for underneath it all,” as the store reportedly once advertised.
But at the end of July, Mildred’s will go the way of the peignoir — the once popular nightgowns with matching robes usually in sheer fabrics like chiffon — when current owner Suzanne Passero, 71, of Bayonne, closes the doors forever.
The shuttering marks yet another severing of the local Jewish community’s ties to businesses that began in Newark. Mildred’s Corset Shoppe opened on Bergen Street in the Weequahic section of Newark in the mid-20th century. Other recent Essex County institutions gone forever include the menswear store Sam’s, closed in 2018, and the Helen Hirsh Store, which specialized in swimwear and lingerie, sold to Great Shapes in 2001. Both were Newark originals that moved to the suburbs with the Jewish community.
Incorporated in 1947, Mildred’s opened a second location in Livingston by 1955, according to an ad in the West Essex Tribune, and boasted two locations in a 1958 ad in The Jewish News, one of NJJN’s previous iterations — “Exciting new figure flattery from the country’s leading manufacturer of girdles, bras, etc.”
Irene Huckman, daughter of the original owner, ran the store for 20 years with her mother before starting her own uniform business in Livingston, and then returned after 10 years to run the store when her daughter, Lynn Slotnick, took over. In the 1980s, a series of ads in the West Essex Tribune hailed three generations in the business, but Slotnick’s daughter never took ownership.
In 1995, Slotnick sold the business to Passero, marking the end of the family’s involvement. At that time, the store had sewing machines and seamstresses who could custom fit anyone; a large part of the revenue even then came from breast forms and bras for women who had undergone mastectomies. To this day, post-mastectomy fittings comprise 50 percent of the business, according to Passero.
Other specialty services include sewing cups into dresses and selling garments known as “shapers” and “all-in-ones,” as well as tops for underneath suits, and “tons” of strapless bras, Passero said.
Passero, formerly an ultrasound technician, knew nothing about lingerie when she bought the business. Suffering from back and eye issues, she sought a career change and thought owning Mildred’s was perfect. It involved limited travel as lingerie shows took place a few times a year in New York City. Slotnick even stayed on to teach her everything, from how to fit bras to tips for stocking merchandise.
A full 90 percent of women are wearing the wrong size bra, according to Passero. “Every woman is different, and every bra is different,”
she said. “Over time, you know your bras, and you know your customers.”
What Passero has loved most is interacting with her “very pleasant” customers. “I’ve enjoyed socializing with them,” she said.
Over the years, she acknowledged, styles have come and gone, from thongs and contour bras to, well, peignoirs. “We used to sell peignoir sets for brides,” she said. “We used to sell tons of them. No more. They don’t wear them anymore. They were beautiful.” Now it’s baby dolls, satin slips, and two-piece sets.
Online retailers have cut into her business significantly, she said. But two other details led to her decision to close Mildred’s: First, her two sons don’t want the shop, and secondly, the mastectomy side of the business has become mired in paperwork required by Medicare. Passero appreciates the need for licensing and store inspections, but remembers simpler days without the hassle of certification.
On a recent Monday, one customer greeted Passero warmly as she came in and expressed sadness that the store is closing. She and the rest of Passero’s customers who come from nearby towns of Caldwell, Short Hills, Verona, Summit, and faraway places such as the Jersey Shore and Florida, will have to find somewhere else where they can head to the room behind the curtain to be measured, and have someone fit them with the perfect bra.