bra, brassiere, caresse crosby, mary phelps jacob

The Inventor of the Bra Gave No Fucks

For a brief period in the late 1960s, the brassiere was held up as an example of society’s oppression of women. That’s quite a shame, because (as anyone who watched that recent Drunk History episode knows), the brassiere was a great, liberating garment created by a woman who simply did not give one single fuck.

Caresse Crosby (born Mary Phelps Jacob) invented the bra when she was just 19 years old. Frustrated by constrictive, bulky corsets that clashed with her outfit and made it difficult to dance, the young débutante said fuck it, stitched together a new support garment out of a couple of handkerchiefs and some ribbon, and headed out to the ball. The other ladies at the party noticed her killer dance moves and awesome rack, and soon the young inventor was inundated with demands for this new type of underwear.

Caresse (then Mary Phelps Jacobs)'s original patent for the brassiere (Wikimedia Commons)
Caresse (then Mary Phelps Jacobs)’s original patent for the brassiere (Wikimedia Commons)

Caresse was more than just a talented seamstress, however. She was a massively influential patron of the arts and a polyamorous party animal. She gleefully flouted the social conventions of her time and lived life on her own terms. She was pretty much a real-world Phryne Fisher, only with marginally less murder.

So, in honor of the brassiere and the extraordinary woman who invented it, here is an incomplete list of things Caresse Crosby did not give a fuck about:

Sexual Modesty

Caresse’s love life shocked her contemporaries. She divorced her husband Richard Peabody in 1922, a time when divorce simply was not done in polite society. But the woman did not give a fuck. She went on to raise a scandal by marrying Harry Crosby, a hard-drinking sex maniac proto-goth six years her junior.

The Crosbys had an open marriage, with both of them carrying on extravagant affairs as well as taking part in the occasional orgy. Harry tried to convince his wife (then known as Mary) to change her name to Clytoris. In a rare display of prudence, she balked, and the couple settled on Caresse. They later bestowed the gynecological moniker on one of their dogs and told their daughter it was named after a Greek goddess.

Though Harry hypocritically complained of her promiscuity, Caresse carried on affairs with men like Ortiz Manolo, Lord Lymington, Jacques Porel, Cord Meier, the Count Armand de la Rochefoucauld and French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Harry had a series of lovers as well, and on occasion the Crosbys would sleep around together. They attended swingers’ parties and had threesomes, and in Morocco the couple took a dancing girl named Zola to bed with them, which would be completely awesome except she was thirteen (oh Jesus Christ no don’t do that).

After Harry and his young lover Josephine died in what was either a suicide pact or a murder-suicide, Caresse very nearly gave a fuck before shrugging and moving on to romance actor/athlete Canada Lee. Their interracial relationship violated anti-miscegenation laws, but, as always, Caresse did not give a fuck.

Caresse eventually married a third time, taking on a hot young trophy husband whose drinking binges left her plenty of time to throw wild parties and carry on an affair with Buckminster Fuller. During her lifetime, the woman fucked her way through most of the 20th century’s greatest minds.

Caresse with her dog Clytoris (Wikimedia Commons)
Caresse with her dog Clytoris (Wikimedia Commons)

Sobriety

Like many of the Lost Generation, Caresse and her various husbands were perhaps overly fond of recreational substances. All three of her husbands were raging alcoholics; husband #2, Harry, could drink Ernest Hemingway under the table.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, Caresse was an expat in Paris, living a life of glorious excess. She paraded into the local art school’s annual Quartre Arts Ball topless, riding a baby elephant. She played polo drunk, riding on donkeys. She smoked opium. She threw massive, wild parties whose guest list included figures like Salvador Dali, D. H. Lawrence, and even a young Eva Braun. She was like the Great Gatsby, only she didn’t give a fuck whether some bland WASP woman liked the party or not.

Running a Business

Caresse didn’t really give a fuck about making money off of her bra-making business, because she was already rich as hell. Besides, garment manufacturing was seriously cutting into her topless elephant parade time. So she sold her bra design to the Warner Brothers Corset Company for a mere $1500. The company went on to make $30 million off of her invention over the next few decades.

Her second husband Harry had a similar attitude toward wealth. In July of 1929, he sent his father a cable that read: “PLEASE SELL $10,000 WORTH OF STOCK – WE HAVE DECIDED TO LEAD A MAD AND EXTRAVAGANT LIFE.”

It’s easy to hate the rich (because generally they’re awful), but one can’t help but be a little charmed by Caresse’s treatment of money. She did what most of us fantasize about doing if we ever win the lottery. She poured wealth into brilliant artists and handsome young lovers. She bought an Italian castle just for the hell of it (and, to her credit, her project to renovate it brought electricity to the nearby village). She started a publishing house with her husband (the second one) just so that the two of them could write goth poetry to each other. Money, to her, was not meant to be hoarded or worshipped: It was meant for more important things, like art, hot guys, and gin.

Literary Convention

As previously mentioned, Caresse and Harry started a publishing house called Black Sun Press. But they quickly got tired of publishing just their own work (representative passageA sunfort flourished in my sunless heart / Beyond the Sun) and added a few more names to their company’s stable of authors.

But instead of publishing popular literature that would appeal to the masses and sell copies, Black Sun Press printed some of the most important, innovative, experimental authors of the first half of the 20th century. The Telegraph writes:

The Black Sun Press published exclusive early extracts from the most anticipated novels of the Twenties (and Thirties), such as Finnegans Wake, as a beautiful book called Tales of Shem and Shaun. The Crosbys’ fastidious French printer secretly went behind their backs to ask its author, James Joyce, if he’d mind padding out the last page with a few lines to make it look prettier. He complied. Pablo Picasso, Caresse’s first choice of illustrator, gladly met her but ultimately turned the offer down on the grounds that he didn’t do portraits. Harry decided to pay another Black Sun writer, DH Lawrence in gold coins, a gesture which he decided the author would appreciate.

When Caresse died in the 1970s, her obituary in Time called her the “literary godmother to the Lost Generation of expatriate writers in Paris.”

But Caresse’s literary interests weren’t all so high-brow. She also liked to pen porn on the side. By 1940, author Henry Miller, famous for The Tropic of Cancer, desperate for money, had turned to writing smut for an Oklahoma oil baron. Faced with a severe case of writer’s block, Miller turned to Caresse for help. She cheerfully obliged, churning out hundreds of pages of pornographic fiction that delighted Miller’s oily benefactor.

The Economy and Politics of Greece

After World War II, Caresse got into pacifism. She founded Women Against War and Citizens of the World, two organizations devoted to the prevention of war by promoting international understanding. But her anti-war activism got her into some trouble with the Greek government:

Caresse continued her work to establish a world citizen’s center in Delphi, Greece, where in 1942 she bought a small house that overlooked the Grove of Apollo. In October 1952, she attempted to visit her property, but she was met by armed guards at Corfu as she got off the ferry from Brindisi. The police placed her under house arrest in the Corfu Palace Hotel, and after three days she was told she was not welcome in Greece, and ordered to leave. The American consul told her that the Greek government thought she was still “considered dangerous to the economy and politics of Greece.” 

Caresse partied so hard that a European nation declared her a threat and had her arrested. Fucks given by Caresse Crosby: 0. Fucks given by the government of Greece: Many.

Whatevs, she thought, and fucked off to her gigantic artist colony in her literal goddamn castle.

Her Tremendous Influence Over the Lives of Millions

Caresse’s invention changed millions of women’s lives, making it much easier for anyone busty to move freely and comfortably while still looking fantastic. Women’s sports would be a disaster without bras. Imagine trying to run a marathon in a corset.

But Caresse didn’t let her status as an inventor go to her head. Near the end of her life, she said, “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.” How very Caresse. She revolutionized women’s fashion, and through it all, she never gave one single solitary fuck.

(Featured image via Mathilda Samuelsson)

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