Now Reading
The bra inventor Mary Phelps – 100 years ago

The bra inventor Mary Phelps – 100 years ago

Mary Phelps JacobIn the roaring 20’s Mary Phelps Jacob was known for her affairs and opium preferences. But apart from that she is also the “mother of the bras”. She registered the patent for it 100 years ago.

There are inventions where teams of experts work for years and years and consume millions and millions until they finally achieve a breakthrough.

And, there are inventions like that of a 22 -year-old American, who just created a billion dollar industry on a whim. The lady, who today is regarded as the the bra inventor, is called Mary Phelps Jacob.

Jacob belonged to the American financial aristocracy of the early 20th century. At a young age her main hobby was to enjoy New York and hang out with other aristocrats at posh parties.

For one of these events Jacob had bought a particularly daring dress with a plunging neckline and gleaming fabric. To her frustration, however, the  “bones” of her corset appeared ugly under the delicate fabric. Worse, the linkage even peeked out of her dress at the sides of her breasts.

This was a situation, which Jacob did not find acceptable. Therefore, she pressed two handkerchiefs and a pink ribbon in her servant’s hand and told her how to tailor with this a holder for breasts. No big deal, Jacob probably thought at first, and eventually just invented the bra.

The bra was an instant hit

But the fact though that it could be a big deal, she caught on quickly. Not only friends and family members ordered the new miracle thing from her. Even strangers spoke to Jacob and offered her a dollar – at that time a lot of money – for such a bra.

Jacob recognized the business potential and announced her invention on February 12th in 1914 for a patent – now 100 years ago.  The bra inventor called it “Backless Brassiere”. Backless is backless and the word Brassiere is derived from the ancient French term for upper arm.

But soon being a businesswoman became boring for Jacob. That was the lucky moment of Lucien Warner and Ira De Ver Warner . The two brothers had, at the end of the 19th Century, established a reasonably successful manufactory for corsets in Connecticut.

The bra of Jacob fit very well in their product range. Priced at $ 1500, they bought the patent from Jacob – the best decision that was ever met the two brothers.

The 1,500- dollar patent generated billions

Alone in the next 30 years the bra patent brought the Warner Brothers Corset Company (there is no connection to the movie studio Warner Brothers) revenues of about $ 15,000,000. Since the late 60s the Warner Brothers Corset Company was known as The Warnaco Group, which includes brands such as Calvin Klein, Speedo, Chaps, Warner ‘s and Olga. Warnaco was taken over by the U.S. textile group PVH in 2013 – for 2.8 billion US dollars.

Even 100 years after Jacob’s invention of the bra it is worn daily by hundreds of millions of women around the world. The global annual sales of bras are estimated to be at 15 billion US dollars.

Now we have to say that Jacob was not the first person who had the idea for a bra. Even in Roman mosaics you see women with something that is reminiscent of today’s loose bikinis. The Viking girls also allegedly wore bras. The fact that the bra later came out of fashion again is presumably due to Caterina de Medici.

Corset code at the French court

Whether it is the wife of the French King Henry II, who invented the corset, is controversial. Is certain, however, that Caterina was trend setting in regards to corsets. She disliked “fat waists” so she implemented a dress code that made wearing a corset a duty. At least 33 centimeters was the size that fine ladies should lace up their bellies to. This is almost only half of today’s beauty standards of 90-60-90.

In the end of the 19th century first doubts were coming up whether such corsets would be good for health when pinching women painfully. Then, Jacobs Brassiere invented 1914 fully met the controversy.

See Also
Dresses for women - different dress lengths

The 1914 outbreak of First World War changed the role of images dramatically. Women were no longer responsible only for family, household and entertainment. The war forced them to work in factories, to wear functional clothing and uniforms. A corset had in such an environment no place but the bra on the other hand was very convenient.

Battleships from corset – metal

On top of that, the U.S. War Department exhorted women to stop buying corsets. The metal in the rods was needed for weapons. Millions of patriotic Americans followed the call and exchanged their corsets against bras. According to tradition about 28,000 tons of metal were saved, enough to build two battleships. The war ended in 1918, but the corsets never came back.

Now you may want to regret Mary Phelps Jacob almost a little that she was fobbed off with a measly $ 1,500 and missed a billion dollar business.

But, apparently lady Jacob could not care less. She lived a life that would be totally suitable for a Hollywood movie. Grown up very rich she never had to work, only did for the fun of it. Her first husband was a drunkard, the second killed himself with his lover, the third was an American football player and ten years younger than her – all brought a lot of money into the marriages.

The wildest times she had with her second husband Harry Grew Crosby in the Roaring 20’s in Paris. Famous writers belonged to their friends and racehorses were her hobby. The couple led an open relationship; there were wild sex parties and Opium vacations in North Africa.  Very famous became a telegram from Crosby that he had sent in a drunken state to his father in 1929: “Please sell shares worth 10,000. We have decided to live a crazy and extravagant life. ”

Later, the couple founded a very successful book publishing company. Under a false name Jacob also wrote pornographic novels, she founded an art gallery in Washington DC, founded the U.S. magazine portfolio and established the political women’s organization Women Against War. When she died in 1979 in Rome of a heart attack, she was working on a meeting of business leaders and politicians in Crete. Who knows, if she would be died a bit later, today the world economic summit would perhaps not take place in Davos but in Greece.

Tina Kaiser

Scroll To Top