Isabelle Marina Held
Designing the Bombshell: Military-Industrial Materials and the Shaping of Women’s Bodies in the United States, 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 US, from WWII to 1976. How did changes in materials and surrounding technologies impact on the postwar fashionable, curvaceous 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 cosmetic 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 the history and impact of plastics in the shaping of cis and trans women’s bodies in the wartime and postwar US. In turn, this knowledge hopes to generate critical questions and perspectives on the use of materials and corporeal applications today.
Research focuses on three types of polymeric materials: nylon, polyurethane foam and silicone. Drawing on extensive original archival research from chemical corporations, plastic surgeons, foundationwear manufacturers, the American Medical Association, the Food and Drug Administration and legal/court collections and archives, it traces their development, actors, networks and application in the shaping of the bombshell on and under the skin. A central contribution of the research is to demonstrate how highly gendered and also racialised power structures, upheld and reflected in US military-industrial and medical networks of plastics, became inscribed upon and permanently embedded within women’s bodies.
A key methodological contribution of the research is its focus on how materials’ physical properties – their materiality – shape their use and meaning. It also offers a novel interdisciplinary and intersectional approach that combines design history’s material- and artefact-led perspective with STS, fashion history, the history of medicine, material feminisms and critical theory of the body – traditionally dissociated but interlinked areas. It makes a key contribution to the histories of design, fashion, technology, medicine and the 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.
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’.
School of Arts & Humanities
History of Design, 2016–2020
School of Humanities
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 ‘Designing the Bombshell: Military-Industrial Materials and the Shaping of Women’s Bodies in the United States, 1939–1976'.
The Smithsonian Institution, Hagley Museum and Library, and Science History Institute have supported Isabelle's PhD research with fellowships. She has lectured in History of Design at the RCA, as well as 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.
- MA History of Design, Royal College of Art, 2012; BA (Hons) Fashion Promotion and Imaging, University for the Creative Arts, 2010
- Visiting lecturer, Royal College of Art, London, UK 2019-2020; Associate lecturer and dissertation supervisor, University of the Arts, London, UK, 2013 – 2017; Sessional lecturer and dissertation supervisor, University for the Creative Arts, Epsom, UK, 2012 – 2017; Contemporary Department curatorial work placement, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2008–9; Contributor to: Baron, Baroness, Under the Influence, The Towner, London, UK, 2014 – 2017; 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
- Techne UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Doctoral Training Partnership PhD Scholarship, 2016 - 2020; Hagley Henry Belin du Pont Dissertation Fellow, 2019; Science History Institute Doan Fellow, 2018; Hagley Henry Belin du Pont Research Fellow, 2018; AHRC International Placement Scheme, Smithsonian Institution Fellow at the National Museum of American History, 2017-2018; Royal College of Art/Bard Graduate Center Student Exchange Programme, 2011
- ‘Postwar Plastics and the Shaping of Women’s Bodies’ (invited talk), Materials, Sex, Heritage: a Critical Heritage Symposium, Critical Heritage Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, 16 September 2019; ‘Fluid Othering: Troubling American Myths of Silicone Shots in Postwar Japan’, Fashioning Inclusivity 2019 Symposium: History, Limits and Possibilities, London College of Fashion, London, UK, 13 June 2019; ‘Outwards, Upwards and Inwards: Plastic Foam’s Expansion from Military-Industrial Material to Female Flesh in the Postwar US, 1939 – 1976’, Plastics Heritage Congress: History, Limits and Possibilities, Lisbon, Portugal. 29 - 31 May 2019; 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
- Reviewed work: Design History Beyond the Canon ed. by Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, Victoria Rose Pass, Christopher S. Wilson, London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2019 (invited review), Design Issues, Vol. 36, No. 2, (Spring 2020), pp. 97-99