The History of the Brassiere

The Story Behind Mary Phelps Jacob and the Brassiere

Brassiere patent

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The first modern brassiere to receive a patent was the one invented in 1913 by a New York socialite named Mary Phelps Jacob.

Jacob had just purchased a sheer evening gown for one of her social events. At the time, the only acceptable undergarment was a corset stiffened with whaleback bones. Jacob found that the whalebones poked out visibly around the plunging neckline and under the sheer fabric. Two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon later, Jacob had designed an alternative to the corset. The corset's reign was starting to topple.

An unhealthy and painful device designed to narrow an adult women's waist to 13, 12, 11 and even 10 inches or less, the invention of the corset is attributed to Catherine de Médicis, wife of King Henri II of France. She enforced a ban on thick waists at court attendances during the 1550's and started over 350 years of whalebones, steel rods and midriff torture.

Jacob's new undergarment complimented the new fashion trends introduced at the time and demands from friends and family were high for the new brassiere. On November 3, 1914, a U.S. patent for the "Backless Brassiere" was issued.

Caresse Crosby Brassieres

Caresse Crosby was the business name Jacob used for her brassiere production line. However, running a business was not enjoyable to Jacob and she soon sold the brassiere patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut for $1,500. Warner (the bra-makers, not the movie-makers) made over fifteen million dollars from the bra patent over the next thirty years.

Jacob was the first to patent an undergarment named "Brassiere" derived from the old French word for "upper arm." Her patent was for a device that was lightweight, soft and separated the breasts naturally.

History of the Brassiere

Here are other points in the history of the brassiere worth mentioning:

  • In 1875, manufacturers George Frost and George Phelps patented the "Union Under-Flannel," a no bones, no eyelets and no laces or pulleys under-outfit.
  • In 1893, a woman named Marie Tucek patented the "breast supporter." The device included separate pockets for the breasts and straps that went over the shoulder, fastened by hook-and-eye closures.
  • In 1889, corset-maker Herminie Cadolle invented the "Well-Being" or "Bien-être," a bra-like device sold as a health aid. The corset's support for the breasts squeezed up from below. Cadolle changed breast support to the shoulders down.
  • World War I dealt the corset a fatal blow when the U.S. War Industries Board called on women to stop buying corsets in 1917. It freed up some 28,000 tons of metal!
  • In 1928, a Russian immigrant named Ida Rosenthal founded Maidenform. Ida was responsible for grouping women into bust-sized categories (cup sizes).

Bali & WonderBra

The Bali Brassiere Company was founded by Sam and Sara Stein in 1927 and was originally called the FayeMiss Lingerie Company. The company's best-known product has been the WonderBra, marketed as "The One And Only WonderBra." Wonderbra is the trade name for an underwired bra with side padding that is designed to uplift and add cleavage.

Bali launched the WonderBra in the U.S. in 1994. But the first WonderBra was the "WonderBra - Push Up Plunge Bra," invented in 1963 by Canadian designer Louise Poirier.

According to Wonderbra USA "this unique garment, the forerunner of today's Wonderbra push-up bra had 54 design elements that lifted and supported the bust to create dramatic cleavage. Its precision engineering involved three-part cup construction, precision-angled back and underwire cups, removable pads called cookies, gate back design for support and rigid straps." 

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Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Brassiere." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). The History of the Brassiere. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Brassiere." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).