Isabelle Marina Held

PhD Work

The Bombshell Assembly Line: military-industrial materials research and the syntheticisation of women’s bodies in the USA. 1939-present

This project analyses the relationship between the research and development of synthetic materials for military and industrial use and modifications to women’s bodies in the US, from WWII to the present day. It explores how and why key actors in synthetic materials’ development and application, including US chemical companies, foundationwear brands and plastic surgeons, selected the female body as a site for employing new artificial materials and as a showcase for their exposition to American and international audiences. Ultimately, it seeks to understand the wider socio-political significance of synthetics and women’s bodies in wartime and post-war US, and to use this knowledge to generate critical questions and perspectives for material research with corporeal applications today.

It focuses on three materials – nylon, polyurethane foam and silicone. Nylon, unveiled by explosives manufacturer DuPont in 1939, became the first highly technical material to be launched on the domestic market as intimate apparel for women. Polyurethane foam, originally used as wartime plane coating, was redeveloped in the late 1940s and moulded into artificial 3D designs to uniformly pad the female form, first in foundationwear and later as implants. Silicone, an engine lubricant developed to aid the war effort, was relaunched in the mid-1960s for use in breast augmentation surgery.

A key methodological contribution of the research will come from its focus on how materials’ physical properties – their materiality – shapes their use and meaning. This material – and artefact-led research project employs an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on analytical methods from disciplines including STS, fashion and design practice, history of medicine and critical theory on the body. Original historical research from chemical company, plastic surgeon and foundationwear brand archives will be compared with investigation into materials’ meaning in contemporary bioengineering, to explore the gendered nature of synthetic materials and their relationship to ideal body image today. 

MA work

Title of Dissertation: Bullet Bras and Bombshells – The shaping of a conical design for bras and breasts in the USA 1930s–1960s

There are numerous links between the ‘bullet bra’, weaponry, the military and the conical busty ideal that became known as ‘bombshell’. ’Bullet Bras and Bombshells‘ explores this complex relationship between military-driven changes in technology and the presentation and perception of the female body in the USA.

The increased standardisation of production during this period affected cultural perceptions of youth that were in turn inscribed upon the ideal female body and the fashion for an uplifted youthful bust line. The US entry into the Second World War marked a time of great change for the bra. The established concept of ‘uplifted youthfulness’ was used by the Corset and Brassiere Association of America to argue its essentiality as a time-saving labour device, essential for moulding an efficient female work force in the absence of male workers, in the hope that this could relieve the rations that affected bra production. Brassiere manufacturers such as Maiden Form engaged in wartime commissions for the military, manufacturing and even designing objects for use in the war effort. Furthermore, the increasingly structured shape of the bullet bra and breast ideal utilised the developments in synthetic materials that had resulted from the military-industrial complex. The development of plastic surgery was likewise accelerated during the War and resulted in its increased publicity as the ultimate method to uplift and shape the breast by permanently implanting the same synthetic materials that were used to mould bras and ‘falsies’.


  • PhD


    School of Arts & Humanities


    History of Design, 2016–2019

  • MA Degree


    School of Fine Art


    MA History of Design, 2012

  • Isabelle Marina Held is a TECHNE AHRC History of Design doctoral researcher at the RCA. Her research project is titled ‘The Bombshell Assembly Line: military-industrial materials research and the syntheticisation of women’s bodies in the USA, 1939 – present’. She was recently awarded an AHRC Smithsonian Fellowship. Isabelle lectures in Cultural and Historical Studies at University of the Arts London and University of the Creative Arts. Her writing is featured in publications including Baron, The Towner, Under the Influence and Baroness.     

  • Degrees

  • MA, History of Design, Royal College of Art, 2012; BA (Hons), Fashion Promotion and Imaging, University for the Creative Arts, 2010
  • Experience

  • Associate Lecturer and Dissertation Supervisor, University of the Arts, London, UK. 2013 – present; Sessional Lecturer and Dissertation Supervisor, University for the Creative Arts, Epsom, UK. 2012 – present; Contemporary Department curatorial work placement, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2008 – 9; Contributor to the following publications: Baron, Baroness, Under the Influence, The Towner, London, UK. 2014 – present; Head of English Translation and UK Content Editor, GoSee Creative News Services, Cologne, Germany. 2006 – 2015; Head of Translation and London Contributor, Booklet Magazine, Cologne, Germany. 2006 – 2010
  • Awards

  • Royal College of Art/Bard Graduate Center Student Exchange Programme, 2011
  • Conferences

  • Atomic Bombshells and Silicone Shots: women’s bodies, the military-industrial complex and plastics in the US, 1939 - 1969, Conflicted Bodies Feminist and Queer Responses to Militarism and Violence, Goldsmiths, University of London, 30 September 2017; ‘Fleshing Out Foam: Polyurethane Foam’s Expansion into the Female Body’, INTIMATERIAL, Royal College of Art, 15 June 2017; ‘Breaking Codes: wartime cryptology, early computing and gender roles at Bletchley Park, UK’, Memory and Perception TECHNE AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership Annual Conference 2016, 3 November 2016; ‘Bullet Bras and Bombshells: the rise and fall of conical bra design in America 1927 -1964’, Covering & Exposing: Manipulation and Fragmentation of the Body Conference, UCA Epsom, 23 June 2012