Whether you love them or hate them, bras have become a staple of women’s fashion. There have been many different female undergarments throughout history, from ancient Rome’s strophium to Victorian corsets. However, the modern bra (or brasserie, as they were called,) can be traced back to Mary Phelps Jacob, a New York socialite.

Jacob, who nicknamed herself “Polly,” was a firecracker who knew how to party. An early 20th-century rave queen, she’d attend multiple balls every night, and sleep in until noon the next day. Most of these balls were actually preparing Jacob for her society debut, but also involved the whole get-up of gowns and corsets, which were not great for dancing the night away. So as a last-minute fix, right before yet another party, she DIY-ed two silk handkerchiefs with ribbon to create a bra. 

Everyone was so impressed by how free and great she looked that they wanted to know her secret. So she quickly patented her invention and sold it as the “Backless Brasserie.” Shortly after marrying Richard Peabody, her long-time boyfriend and upper-class Bostonian, Jacob opened the Fashion Form Brassiere Company in 1920. 

But married life got in the way. Her husband became an alcoholic after returning from World War I and lost his inheritance as a result. In a scandalous turn of events, Jacob began an affair with Harry Crosby, another wealthy Bostonian. Crosby, himself, was the nephew of J.P. Morgan and the great-great-grandson of the one and only Peggy Schuyler (another historical badass featured in the musical Hamilton). Crosby, six years younger than Mary—then, a 28-year old mother of two—fell in love within a few hours of meeting her and declared his love for her at an amusement park’s Tunnel of Love. He may have jumped the gun, but he also relentlessly pursued her. Eventually, Jacob divorced her husband and married Crosby.

Shortly after, the couple moved to Paris and fell into the crowd of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali. They were the epitome of the Jazz Age, living a glamorous lifestyle. At one point, Crosby even encouraged Jacobs to change her name from “Polly Peabody,” suggesting Clytoris as an alternative. Luckily, Jacob knew to shut that down and went by the name of “Caresse Crosby” instead. 

But Jacob was not able to avoid all of her husband’s horrible ideas. Crosby, who had a large trust fund and a secure job from his uncle, persuaded her to shut down her brasserie business. As a result, she sold her patent for $1,500 to the Warner Brothers Corset Company. The Warner Brothers began making millions of dollars off her patent when the US government asked women to stop buying corsets, preserving metal for war efforts in the 1940s. As a result, the company went on to earn more than $15 million.

Another result of her husband’s poor judgment was their marriage’s violent Gatsby-like end. Her husband died at 31 years old, in a suicide pact with his mistresses Josephine Rotch Bigelow. 

Still, Jacob was not to be outdone by her husband’s dramatics. She remarried a football player, 18 years her younger; although that marriage only lasted three years. But aside from love, every other part of her life continued to blossom. She stayed in France, publishing many of their friends’ writings including Hemingway, Faulkner, Edgar Allen Poe, and Dorothy Parker. In fact, Jacob became known as the “literary godmother to the lost generation.” She built a new art community in Rome, lived in a castle, and created a magazine. When she became involved in politics, she established the Women Against War and Citizens of the World organizations.  

By the time Jacob passed away in 1970, bras had become a billion-dollar industry. In fact, the Warner Brothers Corset Company would eventually become Warnaco Group, an international conglomerate and parent company for Speedo and Calvin Klein. Despite losing out on her invention of the bra, Jacob was not bitter. According to the New England Historical Society, she once wrote, “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”

So now, every time you put on or take off a bra, remember Mary Phelps Jacobs and how she would encourage you to live your most free life. 

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