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Monday, Aug 19, 2019

Brassiere or bust

Almost a century after its invention, the bra has survived fire and feminism. Rahul Karmakar writes.

india Updated: Nov 14, 2011 22:59 IST
Rahul Karmakar
Rahul Karmakar
Hindustan Times

There was a joke in high school about a smart tailor who accidentally cut his wife’s oversized brassiere and then 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 Germaine Greer stating that “bras are a ludicrous invention”, not to mention all that ‘bra-burning’ in the liberating 1960s. Rather, it has kept abreast of trendier and spicier competitors such as the boob tube and halter-top that are no longer inner-wear for many.

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 the internet for publishing houses the other day, I came across the Paris-based Black Sun Press that has promoted many a struggling author. Writers included James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. More surfing took me to “literature’s most scandalous couple”, Americans Harry and Caresse Crosby, who owned the press.

Caresse was born Mary Phelps ‘Polly’ Jacob. But Harry, in keeping with their bohemian lifestyle, had 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 brassiere 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 February 12, 1914 and got it on November 13 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 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, Annika Thomas, a designer-blogger said she didn’t need the bra except when she dances wildly. On second thoughts, she said that she loved 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 can be. But you have to be booby-trapped to say abracadabra without thinking of Caresse’s invention.

First Published: Nov 14, 2011 22:56 IST

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