A JOKE we rolled over in high school was on a smart tailor who accidentally cut his wife’s oversized bra and sold the two separated cups as designer caps. Whoever invented that joke had probably read Danish fashion historian Rudolf Kristian Albert Broby-Johansen’s ‘Obituary for the Bra’ in 1969.
The brassiere hasn’t gone bust after 40 years of uplifting despite a Germaine Greer stating ‘bras are a ludicrous invention’ followed by the ‘bra-burning’ controversy of the 1960s. Rather, it has kept abreast of trendier and – from a man’s point of view – spicier competitors such as the boob tube and halter-top that for many are innerwear no longer.
But why, you might ask, should someone with vested interest be brazen about a feminine asset holder? Quite accidentally, like that tailor of our sub-adult joke.
Surfing for publishing houses the other day, I came across Black Sun Press that, based in Paris, promoted many struggling authors. These writers included James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. More surfing took me to ‘literature’s most scandalous couple’ who owned the press – Americans Harry and Caresse Crosby.
Caresse was born Mary Phelps ‘Polly’ Jacob. But Harry, in keeping with their bohemian lifestyle, hand it changed to Caresse though he preferred Clytoris. Some attributed the name to Harry’s fixation for the mammilla, and Caresse was voluptuous.
Caresse wouldn’t perhaps have featured here had she not patented the bra as a 19-year-old. It was the era when American women had to make do with the constricting corset. Caresse refused to wear one to a party, opting for two silk handkerchiefs tied with pink ribbon. A stranger offered her a dollar for her innovation.
Sensing a business opportunity, Caresse filed for a patent for the ‘backless brassiere’ on 12 February 1914 and got it in November that year. She sold the patent to Warner Brothers Corset Company that cashed in on improved variants of the Crosby Bra.
“I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it,” Caresse wrote much later. It was considered a whale of an invention at a time when whalebone-implanted corsets pushed bosoms up, painfully at times, but camouflaged the contours.
But Caresse wasn’t the first to work on corset – bustier, I am told, is its modern avatar – substitutes. Between 1859 and 1893, there were eight patents for designs that included Luman L Chapman’s ‘proto-brassiere’ and Marie Tucek’s metal plate-supported pockets for each breast.
Last September, a designer-blogger named Annika Thomas said she doesn’t really need the bra except when she dances wildly. On second thoughts, she loves to feel feminine and sexy, and ‘a bra can be a magic garment, with the ability to enhance that feeling’.
You don’t have to be a woman to see how magical the bra – soft, stiffened, opaque, translucent, transparent or stick-on – can be. But you have to say abracadabra to be booby trapped to paradise.