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12 February 1914: the bra goddess

This week, we tell you the remarkable story of a conspicuous figure in industry in general and the clothes industry in particular.



Mary Phelps Jacob was a pure product of New York high society who, in spite of – or because of – her strict education, liked to amuse herself and defy convention… The young woman had just turned 18 one fine evening in 1910 when she was getting ready to attend one of the city’s famous debutante balls to mark her arrival among the elite. She put her dress on, looked at herself in the mirror… and pulled a face. Damn this confounded corset that was oppressing her and deforming the material! Seized with a sudden impulse, she took it off, grabbed some handkerchiefs, some ribbon, a thread and a needle… and sketched the contours of what was to become the bra, calling it a “brassiere”. As she wrote later in her memoirs: “That night at the ball, I was so fresh and supple that in the dressing room afterward my friends came flocking around. I gave them a peek and outlined the invention…From then on we all wore them.” So much so that she filed a patent for it on the 12th of February 1914.

Let’s render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s: the origins of this accessory date back to ancient Rome. It was she, however, who gave it its modern form. She was also to benefit from the vagaries of history. The outbreak of World War I led to a shortage of iron, leading the American Chamber of Commerce to confiscate corsets to melt down the bones… Resolutely avant-garde, our heroine opened her own manufacturing company In Boston, the Fashion Form Brassiere Company, in which all the workers were… women. Unfortunately, a slow start drove her to close the company and sell the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company for 1,500 dollars. This company made 15 million from it over the next three decades...



The rest of her life, marked by tempestuous love affairs, is nonetheless fascinating…Married in 1915 to an alcoholic war veteran who gave her two children, she fell madly in love with a young soldier called Harry Crosby. Their relationship causing a scandal in polite society in New York, she divorced in 1922, remarried and took the opportunity to flee to France and… change her first name: she thus became Mrs. Caresse Crosby! In Paris, this extremely liberated couple quickly became darlings of a high society attracted by their Bohemian lifestyle with its whiff of alcohol, opium and ever wilder parties. They crossed paths there with Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Anaïs Nin, and launched a publishing house, Black Sun Press, which published controversial authors such as Charles Bukowski, James Joyce and Lewis Carroll. These golden years came to a tragic end in 1929 when Harry and his mistress shot each other in the head. His wife did not let this get her down, however, and she used her widow’s inheritance to launch Crosby Continental Editions, which published Hemingway and Faulkner in particular. Success eluding her, she became a ghostwriter for pornographic writings signed by Henry Miller!

With the situation deteriorating in Europe, she returned to the United States and, after a few more or less outrageous affairs, got married for a third time with a young football player… whom she quickly divorced. She had by then become one of New York’s stars again, surrounded by the most prominent personalities of the time. 
She nevertheless took advantage of the end of the war to return to Europe and buy a ruined 15th century castle in Rocca Sinibalda, on the outskirts of Rome, thereby obtaining the title of princess! She rebuilt the castle and turned it into a community of young artists eager to work for peace in the world… and led a completely unbridled life there until her death on the 26th of January 1970 at the age of 78.


"A star’s career begins when she can not get into her bra and ends when she can no longer get into her skirt." – Orson Welles


Other events which happened this week:

- 8 February (1919): the first air link is established between Paris and London
- 9 February (1942): the ocean liner Normandie burns in New York
- 9 February (1969): the Boeing 747, nicknamed the Jumbo Jet, makes its first flight in the United States
- 11 February (1854): the main streets of Washington are illuminated with coal gas for the first time 
- 11 February (1937): after 44 days of strike action with factory occupations, General Motors recognizes the United Auto Workers union
- 11 February (1970): launch of Osumi, the first Japanese satellite
- 12 February (1879): opening of North America’s first artificial staking rink in Madison Square Garden in New York
- 12 February (1892): the Frenchman Léon Bouly files a patent for a "cinematograph"
- 13 February (1804): the British inventor Richard Trevithick runs his steam locomotive on rails