You might say that Milt Schwartz grew up in a supportive environment.
His parents founded Schwartz’s Intimate Apparel, a 98-year-old business that has sold bras in sizes ranging from 30AA to 56K to generations of women, including Playboy bunnies and entertainers Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Once dubbed a “bosomologist,” he could look at a woman and accurately guess a size.
“They’d walk in, and he’d say, ‘You’re a 38B,’ ” said his son, Ben Schwartz, a third-generation member of the family business. “He knew his product. To him, it was a profession.”
Schwartz’s shop survived a style evolution in its founding decade alone, when the corsets of the 1920s went out of fashion with the foundation-less flappers. It made it through World War II rationing, when women drew seams on the back of their legs to mimic nylons. Mr. Schwartz saw 1950s girdles give way to pantyhose in the 1960s.
Schwartz’s continued when other “corset shops” went out of business, holding its own as the boudoir became dominated by the Victoria’s Secret chain.
Mr. Schwartz died Oct. 15 at 94. He suffered a stroke at his condo board meeting after working that day at Schwartz’s on Skokie Valley Road in Highland Park.
He was born in Humboldt Park, where his parents, Molly and Benjamin Schwartz, started Schwartz’s at 2708 W. Division. She learned to design and sew in their native Poland back when corsets used whalebone and steel. The store also sold lace handkerchiefs. In those pre-tissue days, women stowed hankies in their bras or blouses to handle a sneeze or a schvitz.
Schwartz’s shop moved near Lawrence and Kedzie in Albany Park, where he attended Roosevelt High School.
During World War II, young Milt served in the Army in Germany and France. Injured when his jeep hit a grenade, he refused a medal because he didn’t want his mother to discover he’d been wounded, his son said. After the Axis surrender, he was stationed near Auschwitz.
“It took me a long time to get over that smell,” he told www.honorflightchicago.org.
He saw Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley while stationed at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in England, where D-Day was planned.
Returning to Chicago, he turned his attention to the family trade. In all, Schwartz’s has operated at six locations. During the 1970s and 1980s, it had five shops at the same time — the original, on Division; in Albany Park; on Oakton Street in Skokie; at Rush and Oak in Chicago; and in Highland Park. For a time, there also was a Wilmette store. Today, the remaining Schwartz’s is in Highland Park.
In the 1960s, after girdles were supplanted by pantyhose, “We had a warehouse full of stockings,” Ben Schwartz said.
The surplus turned into a boon when a stylist for Playboy wandered in looking for nylons and garter belts.
“It started a relationship we had with Playboy for 20 years,” he said.
That led to some savvy strategic planning. After the stylist popped in, Milt Schwartz moved to expand the stock from “foundations” to lingerie.
He prided himself on customer service. If a bride near the Rush Street location called to say she couldn’t squeeze into her bustier, he’d dispatch a fitter to help. When the bunnies at the Playboy mansion reported bras were disappearing from its dormitory-style washing machines, Ben Schwartz dropped off new undies.
Mr. Schwartz greeted women with “hey, honey” and “hey, beautiful.” It wasn’t a come-on. He was married 67 years to Florence, whom he called “my girlfriend.” They met when she came to Schwartz’s for a fitting.
“My mother couldn’t have asked for a better partner,” Ben Schwartz said. “It was a fairy tale.”
In the 1960s, Mr. Schwartz began selling bras for nursing mothers and mastectomy patients. Lifelike silicone prosthetics hadn’t come along, so the special bras used foam. That business grew into the business’s “Positive Care” division. Today, in addition to intimate apparel, the store operates a third division, Sunset Bay, specializing in bathing suits and resort wear.
Mr. Schwartz tried to greet each customer. “We will take care of you as soon as possible,” he’d promise.
Sales associates assessed fit with an unsparing eye. Some called them blunt, but Schwartz’s goal was to ensure customers looked their best.
He could have opened a museum of unmentionables with his vintage products. Schwartz’s owns a 1940s bra with an air bladder that women could inflate to look curvy. Its pointy “missile cone” bras from the 1950s appear ready to detonate.
In addition to his wife and son Ben, Mr. Schwartz is survived by a daughter, Syndi Salat; another son, Steven; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Services have been held.
Even his bank teller showed up at the funeral, his son said, a testimony to his being a “schmoozer” and a “mensch.”