Revolutionary Objects: The Woman Behind the World's First Bra

Although inventing the bra was barely an adolescent pit stop on Mary Phelps Jacobs' glamorous trajectory, it did suggest what she would get up to next.
By Malcolm Harris,

It's easy to take the objects around us for granted, to assume we know how they came to be, and to forget the extraordinary roots of ordinary things. Stories of invention are often hard to verify because every new idea stands on the shoulders of older ones and they make for great urban legends. Adding to the trouble, some of the true tales are too good to be believed, while others are so counterintuitive as to make you reach for your Snopes. But the origin stories of simple household objects sitting in plain sight can tell us more about the past (and the present) than we might imagine. Here are a few unlikely lessons from handy things.

There isn't really any evidence that feminists in the 1960s actually burned bras, but the legend has persisted. The modern bra, though, wasn't created to restrain women—it was an invention that offered both support and liberation, created by a busty party girl, for busty party girls. One night in the early 1910s, young socialite Mary Phelps Jacobs (who went by the name Caresse Crosby for most of her life) was headed to an event when—her corset lacking in danceability and cramping her flapper style—she MacGyvered a sort of halter top out of ribbons and handkerchiefs. Jacobs helped her friends out too, and when she figured out she could make a real go of it, she applied for a patent and opened up a small sweatshop (this was garment manufacturing after all) as an independent proprietress, rather than through her husband.

But Jacobs didn't have a lifetime commitment to being a manufacturer. Through an ex-boyfriend, she sold the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company (no relation to the movie guys) for $1,500—a little over $36,000 in today's buying power. Having rid herself of the only restraining thing in her life, Jacobs and her husband, Harry Crosby, moved to Paris for a while, where they became involved in the Lost Generation scene. She had intellectual and romantic affairs with brilliant weirdos like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Buckminster Fuller, was rumored to have ghostwritten erotica for Henry Miller, and founded an English-language press that published many pioneering modernists.

Although inventing the bra was barely an adolescent pit stop on Jacobs' glamorous trajectory, it did suggest what she would get up to next. Not only would she dance unencumbered through Europe, but the patent application was also her first piece of published writing, wherein she described the bra's benefits, "some of which may be summarized by saying that it does not confine the person anywhere except where it is needed."

A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

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