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Isabelle Marina Held

PhD Work

Designing the Bombshell: Military-Industrial Materials and the Shaping of Women’s Bodies in the USA, 1939–1976

This project analyses the relationship between the research and development of plastic materials for military and industrial use and their role in the shaping of women’s bodies in the United States, from WWII to 1976. How did changes in materials and surrounding technologies impact the postwar fashionable curvaceous US white American ‘bombshell’ ideal and vice versa?  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 to showcase their potential uses to American and international audiences. Ultimately, the project seeks to understand the wider socio-political significance of plastics, their history and impact on the shaping of women’s bodies in wartime and the postwar US. In turn, this knowledge will generate critical questions and perspectives for the use of materials and corporeal applications today. 

Research focuses on three types of polymeric materials: nylon, plastic foam and silicone; tracing their development, actors, networks and application in the shaping of the ‘bombshell’. Nylon, unveiled by DuPont in 1939, was the first ‘fully synthetic’ fibre, launched on the domestic market as intimate apparel for women. In 1945, German advancements in plastic foams, most notably polyurethane, produced by Bayer, were transferred to the US via military intelligence reports, made accessible to industry. By 1946, a range of spongy plastic foams, previously unseen on the US market, were moulded into artificial 3D designs to uniformly pad the female form, in foundationwear and eventually beneath the skin’s surface as implants. Silicone, developed by US chemists as an engine lubricant to aid the war effort, was launched on the public market in 1945 by Dow Corning. By the mid 1950s, silicone was increasingly being used by licensed surgeons and individuals practicing without medical licenses in the shaping of cis and trans women’s bodies through injections and later as implants. The research’s central contribution is to demonstrate how highly gendered and racialised power structures, upheld and reflected in US military-industrial networks of plastics, became inscribed upon and permanently embedded within women’s bodies.

Key methodological contributions of the research are the focus on how materials’ physical properties – their materiality – shapes their use and meaning. It also offers a novel interdisciplinary approach that combines design history’s material- and artefact-led perspective with STS, fashion history, the history of medicine, material feminisms, and critical theory on the body. Drawing on extensive original archival research from chemical corporation, plastic surgeon, foundationwear manufacturer, American Medical Association, Food and Drug Administration and legal/court collections and archives, this study combines traditionally dissociated but interlinked areas; making a key contribution to history of design, fashion, technology and postwar US, by articulating the granular, complex international military-industrial networks of power and disparate actors involved in the shaping of gendered bodies. ‘Designing the Bombshell’ explores the gendered and racialised nature of plastic materials development, their legacy and relationship to ideal body image and shaping in the US 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’.


Info

  • PhD

    School

    School of Arts & Humanities

    Programme

    History of Design, 2016–2019

  • MA Degree

    School

    School of Humanities

    Programme

    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: 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 2006–15; Head of translation and London contributor, Booklet Magazine, Cologne, Germany. 2006–10
  • 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