Mary Phelps Jacob, later known as Caresse Crosby, was an American inventor, publisher, and patron of the arts. Born on April 20, 1891, in New Rochelle, New York, she would go on to make a lasting impact on women’s fashion with her revolutionary invention—the modern brassiere.
Mary Phelps Jacob grew up in a well-to-do family, and she enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. She attended private schools, where she developed an independent and inquisitive nature. From an early age, she displayed an inventive and creative spirit, traits that would later shape her contributions to the world.
In the early 1900s, women’s fashion was dominated by the corset, a constricting undergarment that was worn to shape the figure into an hourglass silhouette. The corset was not only uncomfortable but also imposed physical restrictions on women, hindering their movement and overall well-being. Mary, like many other women of her time, found the corset to be cumbersome and confining.
In 1910, at the age of 19, Mary Phelps Jacob attended a debutante ball, where she planned to wear a beautiful gown that showcased her slim silhouette. However, she faced a problem—her corset was visible beneath the gown, ruining the seamless look she desired. Determined to find a solution, she decided to create her own undergarment that would provide support and shaping without the discomfort and visibility of the corset.
Armed with ingenuity and resourcefulness, Mary set to work on her invention. In 1913, she created a prototype that would change the world of women’s undergarments forever. Using two handkerchiefs and a ribbon, she fashioned a lightweight, more flexible alternative to the corset. This innovative design provided support and shaping without the rigid boning and laces of the traditional garment.
Mary patented her invention on February 12, 1914, under the name “brassiere,” derived from the French word “brassière” meaning a child’s undershirt. The patent described her creation as a “backless brassiere,” designed to replace the corset and provide greater comfort and freedom of movement for women. Little did she know at the time that her invention would revolutionize the undergarment industry and become an indispensable part of women’s fashion for generations to come.
With her patent secured, Mary Phelps Jacob sought to introduce her brassiere to the wider public. She began producing and selling her invention under the brand name “Caresse,” a play on her nickname and the French word for “caress.” The Caresse brassiere gained popularity among women who appreciated its comfort and practicality.
The timing of Mary’s invention was ideal, as societal changes were already underway. The early 20th century witnessed the rise of women’s suffrage movements and the pursuit of greater gender equality. Mary’s brassiere perfectly aligned with the changing attitudes and needs of women, offering them a liberating alternative to the restrictive corsets that symbolized female oppression.
The success of her invention allowed Mary Phelps Jacob to establish herself as an entrepreneur. She set up a company to manufacture and distribute the Caresse brassiere, catering to a growing customer base. However, her entrepreneurial journey was not without challenges. In 1915, World War I disrupted the availability of elastic, a key component of her design. This led her to temporarily halt production, but she later resumed operations after the war.
Beyond her invention, Mary was a trailblazer in other areas of her life. In 1915, she married Richard R. Peabody, an affluent Bostonian, and took on the name Caresse Crosby. The couple settled in New York and became part of the city’s vibrant literary and artistic circles. They socialized with notable figures of the time, including writers, artists, and intellectuals, who were drawn to their avant-garde lifestyle.
In 1920, tragedy struck when Richard Crosby died by suicide. Devastated by the loss of her husband, Caresse sought solace in her passion for literature and art. She turned her attention to publishing and co-founded the Black Sun Press with her second husband, Harry Crosby. The press became renowned for its publication of avant-garde works by esteemed authors such as Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce.
Caresse Crosby’s contributions to the literary world were significant, and her publishing endeavors added another layer to her multifaceted life. She played a crucial role in promoting and supporting emerging talents of the time, establishing herself as a patron of the arts.
In her later years, Caresse Crosby lived a life of relative seclusion, away from the spotlight. She continued to pursue her creative interests and maintained a deep passion for writing poetry. Her entrepreneurial spirit and innovative mindset remained an intrinsic part of her identity until her passing on January 24, 1970.
Mary Phelps Jacob, or Caresse Crosby as she came to be known, left an indelible mark on the world with her invention of the modern brassiere. Her visionary design provided women with a more comfortable and liberating alternative to the corset, revolutionizing women’s fashion and laying the foundation for the bra industry as we know it today. Beyond her invention, she was a champion of literature and art, fostering creativity and supporting the works of talented writers and artists. Caresse Crosby’s legacy is one of innovation, creativity, and a commitment to empowering women in both fashion and the arts.