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The Teen Who Invented Bras Lived in a Castle, Published Hemingway, Much More

Creating the modern brassiere was just the beginning for Caresse Crosby

Keystone Features

Whatever your feelings about bras — love them, hate them, don't mind them but find true joy in removing yours immediately upon entering your own apartment — you are going to love the woman who created them. Caresse Crosby had one of the most fascinating and enviable lives ever, right from the moment she was born Polly Phelps to a wealthy Bostonite family in 1891. She was raised, by her own admission "to ride to hounds, sail boats, and lead cotillions," and she remembered her childhood as "a world where only good smells existed."


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That sounds like such a fun childhood.

But all was not well in Polly's curiously flower-scented world. Namely, the underwear was awful.

At 20, the future Caresse Crosby was attending a slew of balls. She recalled that "I danced at one to three balls every night that season and my usual hours in bed were from four in the morning until noon." Again, wow, her life sounds terrific. But she found that the lines of her filmy dress were ruined by "boxlike armour of whalebone and pink cordage." The corset she was wearing was visible! Everything was terrible, and nothing smelt good that day.

So, at the next ball Caresse asked her maid to fetch her two of her silk handkerchiefs and stitch them together with pink ribbon, creating what we now think of as the bra. It was a revelation.

In her memoir she wrote that:

"That night at the ball, I was so fresh and supple that in the dressing room afterward my friends came flocking around. I gave them a peek and outlined the invention…From then on we all wore them."

Soon people were offering her a small amount of money to make a similar bra for them. She applied for a patent in 1914, promising that her invention was "so efficient that it may be worn even by persons engaged in violent exercise like tennis." She also thought that it was great for insuring the "truth that virgins had breasts should not be suspected."

She sold the design to Warner Brothers Corset Company in 1915 for $1,500.

It’s weird that was a huge secret, but whatever made those bras sell is okay with me! Caresse wasn’t as enthusiastic about running the business as she had been about inventing the product, though. She sold the design to Warner Brothers Corset Company in 1915 for $1,500. That equates to around $25,000 today. They went on to make 15 million dollars from the design in the next 30 years, so that’s terrible. I mean, for Caresse. It’s good for Warner Brothers, I guess. And Caresse was reasonably happy, claiming, "I can't say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it."

And she didn’t suffer for lack of funds.

After her invention she met Harry Crosby, who confessed his adoration for her in a Tunnel of Love. She promptly divorced her first husband, married Harry in 1922, changed her name to Caresse and moved to France. Harry had also suggested the name Clytoris, but they decided to name their dog that instead. From Europe, Harry sent a telegram back to Boston to his family declaring: "PLEASE SELL 10,000 WORTH OF STOCK. WE HAVE DECIDED TO LEAD A MAD AND EXTRAVAGANT LIFE."

"WE HAVE DECIDED TO LEAD A MAD AND EXTRAVAGANT LIFE."

The couple moved to Paris, where Harry worked at the Morgan Bank. Caresse would paddle him to work in a rowboat down the Ile St. Louis. She typically wore a red bathing suit as she rowed, and claimed that she enjoyed the exercise as it was "good for her breasts."

The couple went on to run the Black Sun Press, which published works from modernist writers like James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. Famous artists were commissioned to illustrate them, and they were so exquisitely made that only tiny runs of copies were produced. The antiquarian book expert Neil Pearson told the Telegraph, "If you’re interested in the best of what came out of Paris at that time, a Black Sun book is the literary equivalent of a Braque or a Picasso painting."

Caresse didn’t always wear the bra she designed. For one of her parties she famously wore no top at all while riding a baby elephant — though she might have been overshadowed by her husband, who wore a necklace made of dead pigeons. At other parties they filled their bathtub with champagne and encouraged guests to soak in it.

For one of her parties she famously wore no top at all while riding a baby elephant.

The saddest part of Caresse’s life might have been her husband’s murder/suicide with his 20 year old mistress in 1929. He wrote that, "One is not in love unless one desires to die with one's beloved. There is only one happiness it is to love and to be loved." I don’t know, it seems like there are lots of kinds of happiness. One might be running thriving publishing empires, which Caresse continued to do.

In addition to running Black Sun, she started Crosby Continental Editions, publishing Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway. Later in life she started the magazine Portfolio and opened an art gallery in Washington. At 47, she married a football player (20 years her junior) and bought a plantation in Virginia. While she was there, she wrote pornography along with Henry Miller and Anais Nin.

Marriage to the football player didn’t work out either (he disappeared for a year), so Caresse went off to Rome with the intention of starting an artist’s colony. She bought a castle to do so. She spent the years of her life until her death at 78 traveling between her Italian palace and her mansion in Virginia and her fabulous New York apartment. She shared more about her story in her autobiography The Passionate Years, which is amazing.

I don’t think Caresse would have especially cared whether or not you ever wore a bra. Her life was 100% about having fun and doing great stuff and wearing everything or nothing, as you felt like it. I feel with absolute certainty her ghost would be in favor of you wearing whatever you please. But, if you do have a bra that makes you really, really happy? The next time you put it on you should think of the original Auntie Mame.

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