Mary Phelps Jacob: The inventor of the bra

It’s difficult to imagine a world without the bra – whether a traditional bra with underwiring, or simply a bustier. But who actually invented it? US American Mary Phelps Jacob patented the brassiere in the roaring ‘20s, making her the inventor of the bra. The patent launched a success story like no other.
Unknown, Harry polly crosby 1922, als gemeinfrei gekennzeichnet, Details auf Wikimedia Commons

American Mary Phelps Jacob (also known as Caresse Crosby) was part of New York’s upper class. As a young woman, she spent much of her time at extravagant parties, socialising with other members of the city’s aristocratic circles. This lifestyle required confining oneself in a tight corset. However, these corsets were so restrictive that they inhibited women’s ability to breathe, put pressure on their ribs and kidneys, and sometimes even caused their wearers to faint. But Jacob was more than just a privileged socialite – she was also a committed women’s rights advocate. With her invention, which freed women from the constricting corset, she was surely not the first feminist entrepreneur, but by far the most successful – today, the bra is a billion-dollar industry!

However, her invention was in many ways an accident. Three very different factors drove Mary Phelps Jacob to invent the bra: World War I, her large bust and a daring dress.

Jacob had decided to wear a bold dress to a party. However, the whale bones that formed the structure of the corset bothered her, since they were not only restrictive, but would also be visible under the dress. Because of her generous bosom, she couldn’t appear at such an event without a corset. So she needed an alternative. She asked one of her servants to fashion a corset substitute using two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon and tape. It probably didn’t seem like a big deal to Jacob at first, but she had invented the first brassiere – or bra for short.

The bra becomes a hit

Jacob quickly realised that she had struck a chord with her contemporaries. The bra became very popular among friends and acquaintances, who frequently approached her about her invention at parties. These sophisticated ladies offered her a dollar – a hefty sum at the time – for the innovation. The astute businesswoman recognised the product's potential and patented it on 12 February 1914. Since then, the bra has become a true money-spinner.

Artist unknown, JacobPatent1914pg2, als gemeinfrei gekennzeichnet, Details auf Wikimedia Commons

Corset metal turned into weapons

World War I also played a role in the bra’s success, as the US Department of War asked women to stop wearing corsets. Not out of compassion for them, but because the metal in corsets was needed to create weapons. Millions of American women complied with the request, exchanging their corsets for bras. This signified the end of the corset. According to testimonies from the time, the switch allowed the country to save up to 28,000 tonnes of metal – enough to build two battleships.

However, Mary Phelps Jacob wasn’t particularly interested in running a business, and sold the patent for USD 1,500 in order to focus on her work as a writer and feminist activist. The Warner Brothers Corset Company acquired the patent and went on to make billions. In the first 30 years alone, the bra patent brought the company USD 15 million.

The extravagant life of Mary Phelps Jacob

Mary Phelps Jacob may have only earned USD 1,500 with her invention, but that didn’t bother her. That’s because Jacob already lived a life fit for a Hollywood film. To say she led an extravagant and excessive lifestyle would be an understatement – work for her was just for fun and a way to pass the time. But it was perhaps exactly this freedom that allowed her to come up with such a groundbreaking invention. Mary Phelps Jacob, the mother of the bra!

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