The True Story of the Inventor of the Bra

Bras hanging to dry

Melissa Maples / Flickr

Commemorated in popular song, trivia, and cautionary tale, the tortuous history of Otto Titzling and the invention of the modern brassiere has a lesson to teach us all—though not necessarily the one you might expect.

"The inventor of the modern foundation garment that we women wear today was a German scientist and opera lover by the name of Otto Titsling! This is a true story..."
— "Otto Titsling," lyrics by Bette Midler

As the story goes, Otto Titzling, a German immigrant living in New York City circa 1912, was employed at a factory making women's undergarments when he met an aspiring opera singer named Swanhilda Olafsen. Miss Olafsen, a buxom woman by all accounts, complained to Titzling that the standard corsets in use at the time were not only uncomfortable to wear but failed to provide adequate support where it counted most.

Titzling rose to the challenge and, with the help of his trusty assistant, he set about inventing a new kind of undergarment specifically engineered to meet the needs of the modern woman. The "chest halter" he designed proved to be a brilliant innovation and a commercial success; however, he is said to have neglected to take out a patent.

Otto Titzling vs. Philippe de Brassiere

Enter the flamboyant, French-born fashion designer Philippe de Brassiere, who began ripping off Otto Titzling's designs and manufacturing competing products in the early 1930s. Titzling sued de Brassiere for patent infringement—supposedly facing off in a climactic courtroom "fashion show" in which live models paraded before the judge wearing prototypes by each designer. In the end, Titzling lost the case—not only in the court of law but in the court of public opinion, where de Brassiere, with his knack for self-promotion, managed to cement in the public's mind a lasting connection between the product and his own name. Titzling died penniless and unappreciated, we are told.

This would all be very interesting if any of it were true. In reality, a Canadian author named Wallace Reyburn invented this tale for his wholly satirical "history" of the brassiere published in 1972, Bust-Up: The Uplifting Tale of Otto Titzling and the Development of the Bra.

According to etymologists, the noun brassiere derives not from anyone's surname, but from the Old French braciere, meaning, literally, "arm guard." The first recorded use of brassiere in its modern sense occurred in 1907, at least 20 years before M. Philippe de Brassiere allegedly lent his name to the undergarment in question.

The True Origin of the Bra

Through much of recorded history, women have worn special garments to cover, support, or enhance their breasts—most notably the corset, which was popular from the Renaissance onward but began to lose favor around the turn of the last century as women came to find it overly restrictive. It was then that alternatives began to emerge such as Marie Tucek's "breast supporter," patented in 1893, which consisted of a separate pocket for each breast held in place by flexible shoulder straps.

The first product actually patented under the name brassiere was invented in 1913 by Mary Phelps Jacob, a New York socialite. She hit upon the idea after trying on a brand-new sheer gown over her old whalebone corset, the result of which she found appalling. Using two silk handkerchiefs and pink ribbon, she improvised the forerunner of what would eventually be marketed as the "Backless Brassiere."

After a few years, Jacob (aka "Caresse Crosby") sold the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company, which, under a variety of brand names known collectively as the Warnaco Group, is still a leading manufacturer of brassieres (and many other kinds of garments) to this day.