Unmentionable Icons: Mary Phelps Jacob & 100 years of the Bra

February 6, 2015

Do you know what you were doing on November 3rd of 2014? No, I don't either - yet it was a very important day for women. For women's breasts in particular, as November 3rd was 100 years to the day that the modern bra was patented.

 

Mary Phelps Jacob (also known as Caresse Crosby) is credited with being the inventor of the modern brassiere. She herself had this to say about her invention:

 

"I can't say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it."

 

Well, personally I don't have a lot of use for steamboats, and I feel certain that 100 years of bra wearing women would be tempted to agree that the bra is indeed, one of the great inventions of modern history.

 

Strictly speaking, this wasn't the first bra ever invented, Herminie Cadolle, a french born corset maker invented a 2 part undergarment back in 1889. Prior to that in 1875, the Union Under-Flannel designed by Susan Taylor Converse could be said to have paved the way for the modern bra also - her garment had no bones, pulleys or laces and was made from a soft woollen fabric. But it wasn't until 1893, when a woman called Marie Tucek patented the first bra. Her garment looks much like the modern bra (with a little less cup coverage!), with pockets for the breasts, straps over the shoulders and a hook and eye closure. Unfortunately, it would seem that Marie was unable to market her patent successfully. 

 

Yet the 350 year reign of the corset had to end. Credited to Catherine de Medici, wife to the King of France in the 1550's, who didn't much care for the look of thick waists at court, the corset became unmissable. For centuries women were hoisted into corsets - with waists being squeezed down to as little as 17 inches and causing discomfort, pain and fainting.

 

So, when Mary Phelps had acquired a sheer ball gown in 1910 and she decided that she didn't like the way the corset poked out at the top, or showed through the sheer fabric, the moment for change finally arrived.  She decided on something different and asked her maid to fetch her two pocket handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon. This was fashioned into a light garment to cover her breasts and set off her sheer ball gown to its best advantage.

 

She apparently caused quite the stir amongst family and friends, who all wanted one. Two handkerchiefs and a yard of ribbon are not particularly supportive,  yet despite this, Mary's 'brassiere' as she called it was popular and word spread. When a stranger asked her for one of them, she realised this could be a sound business idea. 

 

The U.S. patent office issued a patent for the Backless Brassiere' on November 3rd, 1914 and Mary went into business. Within a few she had sold the patent on to Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1,500. In today's money, that's around $25,000 - not a bad mark up on 2 hankies and some ribbon! Over the next 30 years, Warner earned some $15million from the patent - helped in part by two very disparate causes - war and fashion.

 

In 1917, the US War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets in order to free up metal. It is said that this step - moving away from corsets - freed up a staggering 28,000 tonnes of metal which was sufficient for two war ships.  The ideal alternative was the light weight backless brassiere, which gave women more freedom of movement, and which flattened their breasts more than they supported. And flat breasts were all the rage in the Roaring 20's, where fashionable flappers ditched the constriction of the fashion of the time in favour of the long line, loose fitting dresses that have become so symbolic of the era.

 

Mary went on to have an amazingly full and varied life. She became a publisher, was a key figure of the Lost Generation in Paris, married three times, had numerous affairs including one with the black actor/boxer Canada Lee and another with Buckminster Fuller, wrote pornography, was friends with Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Salvador Dali, to name but a few. This is a woman who unfettered the breasts of generations of women, and was herself unfettered by the constraints of the society she grew up in, choosing to walk her own path and live a life so full and varied that it opened up avenues for many women in the generations to follow.

 

Many more pioneers of modern lingerie and unmentionables have taken this basic brassiere and further developed it, many of them extraordinary women in their own right, including Ida Rosenthal, who shall be the subject of a later post.

 

So it's hard to believe that the humble bra, unmissable in the wardrobes of most women, has only been with us for a century - but unlike the steam boat which no longer sails our oceans, I predict that the bra will be with us for many years to come.

 

 

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