TIME Style

The 100-Year History of the Modern Bra Is Also the History of Taking Off Bras

Brassiere Patent
Hulton Archive—Getty Images 3rd November 1914: A copy of the first patent for the brassiere

The first modern bra was patented on Nov. 3, 1914

One hundred years ago today, on Nov. 3, 1914, the United States issued a patent for the first modern bra. But when observing this milestone, perhaps we should instead celebrate the greatest perk (pun intended) that bras provide: For 100 years, women have been able to experience the joy of taking off the constricting garment after a long day. And celebrating in this manner is actually in line with 19-year-old socialite Mary Phelps Jacob’s intention when she first created the “Backless Brassiere” a century ago.

As the story goes, Jacob created a bra as a means to avoid wearing her corset — which she affectionately referred to as a stiff, “boxlike armour of whalebone and pink cordage,” according to a Telegraph report on her life — to a debutant ball.

“[The first bra] was basically just two handkerchiefs sewn together, and the bias of the fabric created sort of cups,” says Lynn Boorady, fashion and textile technology chair and associate professor at Buffalo State University. “But it was lightweight [and you would] tie it around your neck. It looks like a halter top bikini, I guess, but not quite so conforming.”

And compared to the restrictive, metal corsets that women were used to jamming their bodies into, the bra was the epitome of relief.

However, although Jacob wore her newfangled bra to the ball (and was complimented for her ability to do things like, well, move), Boorady says that women at the time probably didn’t wear them out of the house much. “I do know that they certainly would have worn them inside the house,” she says, “because most women loosened their corsets at home just to be comfortable.”

So really, the equivalent of coming home and taking off your bra before setting in on a West Wing marathon on Netflix was coming home and swapping your corset for a Backless Brassiere before setting in on a needlepoint marathon.

It wasn’t until World War I, when the metal used in corsets was needed for war efforts, that the bra really began to take off (in the other sense of the phrase). But Jacob, who changed her name to Caresse Crosby, never did turn her creation into a profit. She sold the patent to The Warner Brothers Corset Company in Bridgeport, Conn., for the modern equivalent of $21,000.

Warner got the better end of the deal, but Jacob will always have the glory.

“I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat,” she was once quoted as saying, “but I did invent it.”

Read a 1934 account of a fashion show of corset manufacturers, here in TIME’s archives: Snug Corsets

Tap to read full story

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com


YOU BROKE TIME.COM!

Dear TIME Reader,

As a regular visitor to TIME.com, we are sure you enjoy all the great journalism created by our editors and reporters. Great journalism has great value, and it costs money to make it. One of the main ways we cover our costs is through advertising.

The use of software that blocks ads limits our ability to provide you with the journalism you enjoy. Consider turning your Ad Blocker off so that we can continue to provide the world class journalism you have become accustomed to.

The TIME Team