The Patent for the First Bra and the Bohemian Lifestyle of the Woman Who Invented It

History Hit

2 mins

02 Nov 2018

Mary Phelps Jacob, a New York socialite, was dressing for a debutante ball in 1913 when she struck upon an idea that would change women’s lives forever.

Whilst readying herself for the ball, she despaired at the detrimental effect of her bulky whale bone corset on her sleek, low cut evening gown. Determined not to spend another evening in discomfort and with her style impaired, she summoned her maid to bring two handkerchiefs and a length of pink ribbon.

With some help from a needle and thread, the two fashioned a brassiere. At the ball that evening, she was inundated with requests from other women for the new invention.

Hear Mary Beard’s thoughts on how women have been excluded, demonised and silenced throughout history in her interview with Dan Snow on HistoryHit.TV.Watch Now

Patenting her invention

On 3 November 1914, Mary received the patent for her “Backless Brassiere”. She was not the first to invent a brassiere, as the word entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1911, but Mary’s design set the standard for the modern bra.

Mary began manufacturing the new brassiere but later sold the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1,500 ($21,000 today) who went on to make millions when the bra gained wider popularity.

Later life

Mary went on to lead a remarkable life, courting scandal and controversy. She married three times, and her second marriage to wealthy Bostonian Harry Crosby began as an illicit affair, which shocked their well-heeled society circle.

After divorcing her first husband and marrying Harry, Mary changed her name to Caresse.

Support of the bosom by a bodice (French: brassière), 1900. Credit: Commons.

The pair founded a publishing house and lived an outrageous, Bohemian lifestyle fuelled by drugs and alcohol, and mixed with the foremost artists and writers of the time.

Their Gatsby-esque existence, and notorious open marriage, ended abruptly with the Wall Street Crash in 1929, after which Harry shot himself and his lover Josephine in a New York apartment.

Caresse married a third time in 1937 and continued to mix with an array of artists, including Salvador Dali. She opened a modern art gallery, wrote pornography and founded various political organisations including Women Against War. She died in Rome in 1970.

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