In this third and final installment on female entrepreneurs, we look at three women from three different continents who had an enormous impact on the world of modern clothing and fashion.
Rose Bertin (1747–1813)
For this first entry, we are going all the way back to the “let them eat cake” days of Marie Antoinette. Marie-Jeanne Rose Bertin was dressmaker to the queen and is credited with the birth of haute couture—not just by creating Marie Antoinette’s gowns, which established France as the center of the fashion industry, but because she was savvy enough to understand how quickly fashions might change and how to profit from that.
Bertin came from a stable, if not wealthy, family in the north of France. Both her father and mother worked outside the home so that they could provide an education for Bertin and her brother. Her father died when she was still fairly young, but the family was able to stay afloat through her mother’s work. Bertin moved to Paris at the age of sixteen and with her intelligence and affability was quickly able to become apprenticed to a royal milliner (who later became her business partner).
Most important to Bertin’s success were the relationships she established with various members of the nobility. The first she met was the Princesse de Conti, when Bertin mistook her for a servant while making a dress delivery and started chatting to pass the time. Apparently, the princess took to her instantly and soon recommended Bertin to design the trousseau for a friend’s upcoming wedding. This was not just any wedding: it was the wedding of the wealthiest heiress in France to the Duc de Chartres, cousin of Louis XVI. This wedding commission not only brought Bertin royal favor but also a tremendous amount of business, prompting her employer to make her a partner. Soon after, the Duchesse de Chartres became an official patron to the dressmaker and, in 1770, bankrolled Bertin’s own establishment on the Rue Saint-Honoré.
The duchess was also instrumental in establishing Bertin’s contact with the future queen, lobbying the ladies-in-waiting at Versailles to have Bertin make the outfit that the young Marie Antoinette would change into at the border upon her entrance to the country. In 1772, Bertin was officially introduced to the dauphine and was awarded a royal order to dress her that amounted to roughly $4000 in 1772 dollars (out of a clothing budget of $24,000). But Marie Antoinette was soon spending much more than that on her clothes, with much of it going to Bertin. We’re talking millions in today’s dollars.
Bertin would present her designs to the queen twice a week and they spent numerous hours discussing clothing details. This relationship was key to Bertin’s business model. Seeing how quickly the queen would become bored when everyone started dressing as she did, and how important dressing in the latest styles was to life at Versailles, Bertin learned to cycle her new designs down to the rest of the court as quickly as possible, which would kick off new conversations with the queen, and so lead to nearly continuous orders. Bertin also created many fashion dolls, called pandores, which the queen would give as gifts. These essentially served as fashion magazines do today.
Even in prison during the early years of the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette availed herself of Bertin’s services (albeit on a much smaller scale) including a mourning outfit for her husband’s execution. Soon, however, Bertin wisely moved her business to London, serving many of the émigrées who had also fled France. Bertin returned to France in 1795 and continued to dress the well-to-do, including Joséphine de Beauharnais, the wife of Napoléon, but, in the wake of the Revolution, Bertin had gone out of fashion. She eventually transferred her business to her nephews and retired.
Il n’y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublié.
There is nothing new except that which has been forgotten.
—Rose Bertin, 1785
Annette Kellerman (1887–1975)
Annette Kellerman was born in New South Wales, Australia, the daughter of two musicians. Due to the need to wear steel braces on her legs as a child, her parents enrolled her in swimming classes at a very young age in order to help strengthen her legs. By the age of fifteen she was swimming competitively. In 1902, she won multiple championships, breaking records as she went, including a world record for swimming one mile. After moving to Melbourne, she gave swimming and diving exhibitions and also performed as a mermaid and in the theater. (Later, Kellerman would help popularize the sport of synchronized swimming with a performance of the first water ballet in a glass tank at the New York Hippodrome.)
In search of more lucrative opportunities to compete and perform, Kellerman and her father moved to England. In 1905, Kellerman was one of the first women to attempt to swim the English Channel—three times—although she was unsuccessful. Still, these attempts (and her training swims), which were sponsored by the Daily Mirror, won her much notoriety. As a swimmer, Kellerman was best known for championing the one-piece bathing suit (instead of the usual pantaloons and dresses), a cause for which she was arrested in 1907 near Boston, Massachusetts. Of course, she had had to create her own makeshift suits for some time in order to be competitive in the water and she eventually designed her own line of swimwear, the first modern swimwear for women. For many years, “Kellerman” was a generic name for any one-piece swimsuit.
Ever the performer, Kellerman ended up in Hollywood, where she was the first actress to appear nude in a major studio production, A Daughter of the Gods (now considered a “lost film”). Many of her films had aquatic themes and she performed her own stunts in them. The only known surviving feature film of Kellerman’s is Venus of the South Seas (1924), which was restored by the Library of Congress in 2004. Kellerman herself was later portrayed on screen by that other famous bathing beauty—Esther Williams—in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Kellerman remained in California for much of her life, owning a health food store in Long Beach (she was a lifelong vegetarian). She also wrote numerous books on health, natural beauty, and fitness, including How to Swim in 1918 and Physical Beauty: How to Keep It in 1919.
Mary Phelps Jacob (1891–1970)
Mary Phelps Jacob, nicknamed Polly as a girl and later also known as Caresse Crosby, was the first person to receive a patent for the modern bra. But that event is almost a footnote to the rest of her life, which was absolutely incredible.
Jacob was born into a New York society family that dated back to the earliest colonial days in New England. On her father’s side, her family tree included both Robert Fulton, developer of the steamboat, and William Bradford, the first governor of Plymouth Colony. Compared to many of her friends, her family was not rich, but they lived incredibly well. Polly attended Miss Chapin’s School in New York and then Rosemary Hall, a boarding school in Connecticut. It was this lifestyle that led to her invention when, in 1910, at the age of 19, she was preparing to attend one of many debutante balls and realized her corset poked out from under her sheer, plunging gown. She decided to stitch together a makeshift undergarment of handkerchiefs and ribbon and wore that instead. Immediately, her friends all wanted one. When she finally received a request from a stranger, she knew this might be a viable business. Jacob filed for and was granted a patent for a “backless brassiere” in 1914. Although versions of brassieres had existed previously, what was unique about Jacob’s version was that it was easily adapted to women of different sizes and could withstand a variety of movements. Most importantly, it was comfortable. Amirite, ladies?
Soon after filing for her patent, Jacob married Dick Peabody, a wealthy Bostonian blue-blood. He went off to war and then eventually became a professional drunkard, so Polly decided to open her own business and founded the Fashion Form Brassiere Company in Boston in 1920. Also in 1920, Polly met Harry Crosby and proceeded to have a very public fling with him, scandalizing society. She divorced two years later and married Harry, just about the time she began manufacturing her wireless bra. Sadly, Harry had nothing but disdain for industry and persuaded Polly to close the business. She later sold the patent to the Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1500 (approximately $22,000 in today’s dollars). Warner went on to earn more than $15 million from the patent over the next few decades.
I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.
Immediately after their marriage, the couple moved to Europe where they became members of the so-called Lost Generation, living off of Harry’s generous trust fund (among other connections, J.P. Morgan was Harry’s godfather). The couple embraced a glamorous and reckless lifestyle, with an open marriage and frequent drug use. In 1924, Harry urged Polly to change her name, suggesting Clytoris, but settling for Caresse. (Dodged a bullet there, Polly.) In 1925, the couple opened a publishing house named after their pet whippet, Narcisse Noir (pictured below). Later, they rechristened the business Black Sun Press, publishing exquisitely crafted books by the likes of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, and Ezra Pound.
In 1929, Harry died as part of either a double suicide or murder-suicide with one of his mistresses. And, yes, Harry was the one suspected of murder. Nevertheless, Caresse continued to run Black Sun Press until 1936, although she went back to using her birth name of Mary and was subsequently known as Mary Caresse Crosby. In 1937, she returned to the States and married the much-younger Selbert Young. She also ghost-wrote pornography for Henry Miller on the side, because why not. After divorcing Young in 1941, Crosby moved to Washington, DC and opened a modern art gallery, because why not. She eventually moved to Greece, where she purchased a castle north of Rome and turned it into an artists’ colony. I mean, damn.
To read more about these incredible women:
- Émile Langlade, Rose Bertin: The Creator of Fashion at the Court of Marie Antoinette (1908)
- Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution (2006)
- Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story (2005)
- Caresse Crosby, The Passionate Years (1953)
- Linda Hamalian, The Cramoisy Queen: A Life of Caresse Crosby (2005)
For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air
Wasps and Witches
Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War
Soldiers and Spies in World War II
Adventurers and Explorers
From A to Z for Realz
A Mind at (House)Work
Looking Good; Feeling Good
And once again I seem to have reached the end of Women’s History Month without writing about Zenobia. I guess you’ll just have to tune in next year—same month, same place—when I will absolutely, positively, look at warrior queens. So help me, Lakshmibai.