In 1910, at age 19, Polly (a.k.a. Mary Phelps Jacob a.k.a. Caresse Crosby was preparing to attend yet another débutante ball one evening. As was customary, she put on a corset stiffened with whalebone and a restrictive, tight corset cover that flattened and jammed her large breasts together into a single monobosom.
Corset to bra
A corset was cinched in to form as tiny a waist as possible, and the woman’s torso was held very erect. A corset was very confining, and it would have been difficult to feel comfortable dressed in one. Mary wore a dress she had worn on her debut a few weeks previously, a sheer evening gown with a plunging neckline that displayed her ample cleavage. But the corset cover, a “boxlike armour of whalebone and pink cordage,” poked out from under the gown, and this time she called Marie, her personal maid. She told her, “Bring me two of my pocket handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon … And bring the needle and thread and some pins.” She fashioned the handkerchiefs and ribbon into a simple bra.
A business was born
Mary’s new undergarment complemented the new fashions of the time. In her memoir, she recalled the evening she first wore her new bra as the dawn of her subversion. “That night at the ball, I was so fresh and supple that in the dressing room afterward my friends came flocking around,” she wrote. “I gave them a peek and outlined the invention.” The next day they all wanted one. One day, she received a request for one of her contraptions from a stranger, who offered a dollar for her efforts. She knew then that this could become a viable business.
In her later years, she wrote, “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”
In the first image we see a woman constricted in a corset. In order to meet the ideal fashion of the time -an extreme wasp waist- girls and women trumped each other at the end of the 19th century in being able to wear the corset ever tighter. After a while, the body adapts and the corset can be pulled tighter. However, wearing a corset that was too tight for a long time had medical consequences. The organs were compressed in the rib cage. There is even a known case of a girl who went to boarding school at the age of 15 with a 58cm waist and came back two years later with a wasp waist of 33cm. The second painting from the diptych depicts the freedom for women when the corset is replaced by the bra. Maybe just a little less pleasing for the bystanders, but oh so much more freedom of movement for the lady in question. Space is created for the lush forms of women.
‘Never no’ was the motto of Caresse Crosby (born Mary Phelps Jacob; April 20, 1892 – January 24, 1970) and is the title of a series of paintings inspired by her life. She was the inventor of the modern bra, but somehow that was only a minor detail in her extravagant life. She was a notorious figure in 1920s Paris, embracing the bohemian life with indulgences like booze, opium and wild parties. She was the patron to the literary Lost Generation, moved in the highest artistic circles (Dali, Picasso), owned a castle, but unfortunately her story has been largely forgotten.