You might think you know this one: the bra was invented by the man with the most hilarious name in all of history, Otto Titzling. Or, y'know, not.
Shows of Support
Before we debunk the Titzling myth, let's talk about the real people who came up with the bra, the first versions of which appeared in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Among them, the one that most closely resembled today's bras was the brainchild of Herminie Cadolle, a 19th-century feminist who found that the corset didn't fit her freewheeling lifestyle. Cadolle's initial design came in two pieces, allowing women more flexibility than a corset did. She called her contraption a "soutin-gorge," or "throat support," which makes us wonder just how much support it offered!
The upper part was a big hit, and Cadolle's shop began to attract customers of the very finest ilk. Cadolle, the business, still does brisk business selling corsets on the Rue Cambon today.
The term "brassiere" doesn't seem to have been used until another liberated woman, Mary Phelps "Polly" Jacob, came along. The socialite had a problem unique to rich folk: finding something to wear under her dazzling new sheer evening gown. The whalebone support inside her corset gave Jacob the embarrassing equivalent of a panty line on her torso. So, with remarkable resourcefulness and a little help from her maid, she stitched up an ad-hoc backless bra out of two handkerchiefs and a length of ribbon.
The new style was quite a hit in Jacob's social circles, and once word of it spread, she quickly patented her invention and named it after the French word for "upper arm."
Lies Your Brother Told You
As for the Titzling myth, it's a great invention in and of itself - the work of humorist Wallace Reyburn, who wrote an entire book about it in 1971 called Bust-Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra. Reyburn's protagonist supposedly created the first bra (fine, the first "titzling") for a well-endowed opera-singer friend, then lost the patent and the name in court to one Phillip de Brassiere.
Two years earlier, Reyburn had written a similar history that was slightly closer to accurate: Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper. The protagonist was at least a real plumber, even if he didn't invent the toilet. Perhaps because of that veneer of authenticity - or maybe just because it was a story too good to disprove - the Titzling fiction quickly entered pop culture as fact.
Adapted from In the Beginning (HarperCollins), which is available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun, visit MentalFloss.com and check out mental_floss magazine at your local newsstand.