Caresse Crosby, Brazen Inventor of the Brassiere


Caresse Crosby and her whippet around 1922, Wikimedia // Public Domain

An American who chased love, championed art, and forever changed the shape of the modern woman, Caresse Crosby is best known as the inventor of the bra. However, that's not her only uplifting accomplishment. Here's the revealing truth behind the mother of the brassiere.

Born Mary Phelps Jacobs in New Rochelle, New York, on April 20, 1891, she came from a prominent New England lineage. Her family tree boasted a Crusades-era knight, the founder of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, a Civil War commander, famed steamboat developer Robert Fulton, and the Plymouth Colony's first governor. Growing up, Polly—as family and friends called her—wanted for nothing. As she herself described it, she was raised "in a world where only good smells existed" and "what I wanted usually came to pass." Polly maintained a headstrong drive that would serve her well through her globe-trekking travels, mercurial romances, major tragedies, and fearless exploits.

This story really begins when Polly was 19 and dressing for a debutante's ball. She slipped her delicate evening gown over the whalebone corset that was the standard undergarment for women of the time, but scowled in the mirror upon seeing how the clunky, uncomfortable device protruded from her plunging neckline and how its boning bubbled the sheer fabric. Determined, Polly called out to her maid for a pair of silk handkerchiefs, a cord, some pink ribbon, a needle, and thread. Polly bent over these seemingly random items, stitching with a narrow-eyed concentration. Yet when she was done, she'd created the foundation for the modern bra.

Polly made quite the entrance at the party. Soon, female friends were flocking to her, requesting similar structures. Word spread. When a stranger offered Polly a dollar for the garment she'd dubbed a "brassiere," she realized the product's potential. She began the process of copyrighting her design, writing to the U.S. Patent Office that her Backless Brassiere was "capable of universal fit to such an extent that...the size and shape of a single garment will be suitable for a considerable variety of different customers" and was "so efficient that it may be worn even by persons engaged in violent exercise like tennis." On November 3, 1914, the patent office approved her request, making Polly the first to patent a bra in the United States. From there she started the Fashion Form Brassiere Company in Boston, where she employed women to manufacture wireless bras.

Patent design for a "backless brassiere" by Mary Phelps Jacob, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Notably, Polly's bra is not much like the ones women favor today. Lightweight, soft and infinitely more comfortable than a waist-cinching, ribs-crushing corset, the Backless Brassiere gave little support, separating the breasts while flattening them. Their lack of metal made them a crucial alternative during World War I, when the U.S. War Industries Board declared a prohibition on corset construction so their ribbing might be used to build battleships.

But before her invention truly took off, Polly closed shop and sold the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1500—an acquisition that earned the company $15 million over the next 30 years. Though she missed out on a grand windfall, Polly later reflected with pride on her creation, writing, "I can't say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it." But this eccentric entrepreneur wasn't done shaping the world just yet.

At 29, Polly was heartbroken over her failing marriage to Richard R. Peabody, a WWI veteran who'd turned away from his wife and toward the bottle. The lonely Mrs. Peabody's life took a twist right out of a romance novel when she met Harry Crosby, a passionate, handsome, and gleefully subversive suitor on Independence Day 1920. Polly Peabody and Crosby began a torrid affair that included a confession of affection in an amusement park's Tunnel of Love, much tongue-wagging from Boston blue-bloods, and a holiday to New York that inspired Polly to later reflect, "For the first time in my life, I knew myself to be a person."

After the Peabodys divorced, Richard went on to conquer his alcoholism and become a bestselling author with The Common Sense of Drinking. Polly married Crosby in September 9, 1922, moved with him to France, and refashioned herself with an all-new moniker: Caresse Crosby. The name spoke to her bawdy sense of humor, which extended to her beloved pet whippet, named Clytoris.

In Paris, the Crosbys became stars in the expatriate crowd, embracing the bohemian life with indulgences like booze, opium, wild parties, an ahead-of-their-time open marriage, and a suicide pact (more on that later). Their lavish home even included a white wall that served as a guestbook, which they invited their artist friends to mark with conveniently placed watercolor paints. There, scrawls by Salvador Dali twirled into a phoenix painted by D.H. Lawrence.

Together this "strikingly attractive, preposterously well-connected couple" got into publishing, printing not only their own poems but also works by such now-famous authors as D. H. Lawrence, Kay Boyle, Ezra Pound, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Hart Crane, Robert Duncan, Anaïs Nin, Charles Bukowski, and Henry Miller. Sadly, while Caresse thrived on their lush life of art and decadence, Harry Crosby soured on it. On December 10, 1929, he went through with his part of the suicide pact. However, his partner in it was not Caresse, but his latest mistress, Josephine Noyes Rotch.

Caresse survived the death of her husband and the brutal end of her second marriage by digging deeply into her work. On top of their Black Sun Press brand, she established Crosby Continental Editions, which printed works by Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Dorothy Parker.

The free spirit channeled her lust for life and, well, lust into 200 pages of erotica credited to Henry Miller: his Opus Pistorum. The authorship of the book is almost as controversial as its content, but Caresse apparently played a large role in writing it. In it, she channeled the experience of taking various lovers as well as an illicit imagination that refused to be confined, just as a young Polly's bust once did.

In the mid-1930s, a forty-something Caresse returned to America for a few years. In that time, she opened a gallery in Washington D.C., founded the art and literary magazine Portfolio, and managed a three-year marriage to football player Selbert Young, who was 18 years her junior. But by the 1950s, Caresse was an ex-pat once more, fostering a new artist community in the castle she'd acquired outside of Rome. She also got into politics, founding two organizations that aimed to better international diplomacy: Women Against War and Citizens of the World. But upon her death at age 78, her TIME magazine eulogy focused on her contributions to the written word, calling Caresse the "literary godmother to the 'lost generation' of expatriate writers in Paris."

Caresse Crosby (also known as Mary Phelps Jacob and Polly Peabody) passed away January 24, 1970, in Rome. To learn more about her and her vivacious life, check out her memoir The Passionate Years.

Caresse Crosby being carried around her estate outside Rome in 1964. Image credit: Getty Images.

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