Sunday, March 11, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Caresse Crosby

Caresse Crosby and her dog
Caresse Crosby deserves many thanks for inventing the modern bra and helping free women from corsets. No matter how comfy leggings and a jersey dress are, a corset would ruin that whole vibe. This is exactly how 19-year-old Caresse, born Mary Phelps Jacob and known then as Polly, felt when she was getting ready for a debutante ball one evening in 1910. The corset wasn't working with her party dress so she asked her maid to bring her two handkerchiefs, pink ribbon, a needle and thread. She created what she called the "backless brassiere" right then.

Caresse enjoyed her free movement and realized this idea had potential. Her friends flocked to her to find out about this new undergarment so Caresse filed for a patent, which was granted in 1914. While Caresse was the first to receive a patent in this category other patents for bra-like garments date back to 1860. Caresse's design was lightweight and very similar to modern bra construction.

She didn't stop at inventing and patenting the product. In 1915 she married Richard Peabody. By 1920, she had started her own business where she hired women to manufacture bras. This provided both financial freedom and freedom of movement to those employed.

Sadly, Caresse's business did not take off so she sold the patent to The Warner Brother's Corset Company (which is now known as Warners and owned by PVH). The design became a huge success for them. Caresse did not reap all the financial rewards of her invention, but she did take pride in her creation, "I can't say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it."

For Caresse, 1920 would be a big year. While still married to Richard, with whom she had two sons, she met Harry Crosby who was six years her junior. They two began a tumultuous affair as Caresse struggled in her failing marriage to Richard who had become an alcoholic. By February of 1922, Caresse divorced her first husband. In July of that year, she and her children moved to Paris with Harry. The couple married in New York in September and returned to Paris two days later.

Once married Harry suggested that the women formerly known as Polly adopt a new name that began with a "C." After briefly considering the name Clytoris, she formally changed her name to Caresse. (She later named her dog, a whippet, Clytoris).

Caresse and Harry quickly became a well-known couple in the bohemian art scene in 1920s Paris. They traveled, threw lavish parties and began publishing books. Their home featured a white wall that served as a guest book, which was signed by Salvador Dali, D.H. Lawrence and many more.  In 1927, they started Black Sun Press which would go on to publish writers such as Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Dali, Edgar Allan Poe, James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, T.S. Eliot, Charles Bukowski and Dorothy Parker.

Harry commuted suicide in 1929, but Caresse carried on her work in publishing as well as other avenues. She tried her hand at acting and while in Hollywood she met and married Bert Saffold in 1937 who she would divorce by 1941.

During the 1940s she ghost wrote erotica for Henry Miller before opening her own art gallery in 1941. She used Black Sun Press to present Portfolio a quarterly publication featuring new work from writers and artists including deluxe copies of each issue that featured original artwork by famous artists. She created six issues in total before running out of funds.

After the war, Caresse became an activist fighting for peace and founding such organizations as Women Against War and Citizens of the World.

In the 1950s she bought a castle in Rome and used it to support artists leaving it open for them to live there or visit for a time. In 1953, her autobiography, The Passionate Years, was published. Caresse sold the castle in 1970 shortly before her death from pneumonia on January 24th of that same year.

Caresse led a varied life full of inventiveness, art, intrigue and friendship. She built relationships and fostered artistic communities. While many of her projects were short-lived or unprofitable, Caresse carried out her passions regardless of how society responded and forged her own path. Through her work, she made lasting impressions in the worlds of art, literature and women's fashion.

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