Whether you love them or hate them, bras have become a staple of women’s undergarments and fashion. But even those of us who love them have probably asked ourselves at some point, who came up with this idea? Enter Mary Phelps Jacob.

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that there have been many different female undergarments used throughout history, from ancient Rome’s “strophium” to the corsets that lasted centuries. But, the modern bra (or brasserie, as they were called,) can be traced back to Jacob, a New York socialite in the early 20th century. Jacob nicknamed herself “Polly” and as a teenager, she was a firecracker who knew how to party. Like a rave queen, she’d attend multiple balls every night, and sleep in until noon every day. Most of these balls were actually preparing Jacob for her society debut, but this 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 another debutante party, she DIYed 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 was the nephew of J.P. Morgan and the great-great-grandson of the one and only Peggy Schuyler (another historical badass whose life was brought to attention by the musical Hamilton). Harry, six years younger than 28-year old mother of two Mary, 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 jumped the gun a bit, but he 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 Hemmingway, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali. They were the epitome of the Jazz Age, living a glamorous lifestyle. At some point, Crosby suggested that Jacob change her name from “Polly Peabody,” suggesting Clytoris as an alternative. Luckily, Jacob knew to shut that down and went with Caresse Crosby instead. 

But Jacob was not able to avoid all of her husband’s dumb ideas. Crosby, who had a large trust fund and a secure job from his uncle (remember J.P. Morgan?), 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 of her patent during the war when the US asked women to stop buying corsets to preserve metal for the war effort. As a result, the company went on to earn more than $15 million.

Furthermore, in another one of her husband’s bad ideas, their marriage came to a violent Gatsby-like end. Her husband died at 31 years old, in a suicide pact with his mistresses Josephine Rotch Bigelow. 

But Jacob was not to be outdone by her husband’s dramatics. She remarried to 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 Women Against War and Citizens of the World.  

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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  • Helena Ong

    Helena Ong is a freelance writer and journalist from San Francisco, California. In the past, she's worked at San Francisco Public Press, World Policy Journal, and NBC4 Los Angeles. She graduated from Pomona College, where she served as Production Editor for her college newspaper, The Student Life.