A Per­fect Fit: How Lena Lane” Bryant Changed the Shape of Fashion

  • Review
By – March 6, 2023

Long before the body pos­i­tiv­i­ty move­ment became com­mon cur­ren­cy, an imag­i­na­tive Jew­ish woman named Lena Him­mel­stein Bryant Malsin (1877 – 1951) saw the com­mer­cial pos­si­bil­i­ties in embrac­ing this idea. Mara Rockliff’s and Jua­na Mar­tinez Neale’s time­ly pic­ture book intro­duces young read­ers to an under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed hero­ine who strug­gled in her ear­ly life and lat­er achieved suc­cess as a lead­ing entre­pre­neur. Her vision seemed unlike­ly at the time: the need to design and sell clothes for women who did not fit the stan­dard mold of fem­i­nine beau­ty. With inspir­ing words and pic­tures that are both real­is­tic and fan­ci­ful, this biog­ra­phy demon­strates that com­pas­sion and ambi­tion can go together.

The book begins with Lena’s child­hood in Europe. The warmth and lov­ing sup­port of her small fam­i­ly is a per­fect fit,” but as she gets old­er, Lena becomes aware of her home’s lim­i­ta­tions on her future. Anti­semitism and pover­ty threat­en her dreams. All the while, her wise grand­fa­ther insists that help­ing oth­ers should be her true goal. In his long black coat, broad-brimmed hat, and white beard, this benev­o­lent man is the pic­ture of tra­di­tion, yet he also moti­vates her to push back against the obsta­cles in her path. He reap­pears at the story’s con­clu­sion, but in between these two book­ends, his pres­ence is implic­it on every page.

Martinez-Neal’s illus­tra­tions are daz­zling. Ele­gant black sewing machines are his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate, fac­ing each oth­er as if in con­ver­sa­tion. In anoth­er image, the new­ly wid­owed Lena, vis­i­bly grief-strick­en, holds her baby, who by con­trast appears calm.

When Lena wel­comes a preg­nant client to her small sewing busi­ness, the woman’s grow­ing bel­ly becomes a pro­fes­sion­al chal­lenge. Remem­ber­ing her grandfather’s advice, she sets out to design cloth­ing that is com­fort­able and accom­mo­dat­ing for this time of life. Lat­er, she extends her idea to include not only mater­ni­ty clothes, but out­fits for the many women whose bod­ies do not con­form to rigid norms.

The path to suc­cess is not straight­for­ward. Rock­liff describes an inci­dent in which Lena’s fear about open­ing a bank account caused her hand to trem­ble, such that she acci­den­tal­ly changed her name from Lena to Lane. Mar­tinez-Neal visu­al­izes this moment by show­ing the nor­mal­ly proud Lena bent slight­ly in her seat, clutch­ing her pock­et­book, as two tall, face­less bankers stand on either side of her. She assumes that her author­i­ty and finan­cial pow­er to rent a big­ger shop and hire more peo­ple to help her sew” is threat­en­ing to these impos­ing men; but by the next page, Lena stands proud­ly in front of a sign with her new name and title.

The author takes care to pro­vide accu­rate infor­ma­tion that is nev­er­the­less acces­si­ble. Exquis­ite art­work and a flu­ent nar­ra­tive ele­vate Lena’s sto­ry, mak­ing it a valu­able addi­tion to pic­ture book biogra­phies about Jew­ish women.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions