How Plastics Shaped the Bombshell: Military-Industrial Materials R&D and Women’s Bodies in the United States, 1939–1976

Lunchtime Lectures
Tuesday, November 6, 2018
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a Brown Bag Lecture by Isabelle Held, Doan Fellow at the Science History Institute.

In this talk I will explore the ways in which plastic materials and technologies developed through autarky became culturally and materially inscribed upon and embedded within the gendered female body. What materials shaped the glamorous “bombshell” ideal, and how did their materiality affect the shaping of the curvaceous ideal? I analyze the relationship between the R&D of synthetic materials for military and industrial use and modifications to women’s bodies in the United States, from 1939 to 1976. I also investigate how and why key actors in synthetic materials’ development and application, including U.S. chemical companies, foundation-wear brands, and cosmetic 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, I seek to understand the wider sociopolitical significance of plastics and women’s bodies in wartime and postwar America to generate critical questions and perspectives for material research with corporeal applications today. 

In my talk I will focus on three materials—nylon, plastic foam, and silicone—and will present an example from each. Nylon became the first highly technical material to be launched on the domestic market as intimate apparel for women. Plastic foams made of wartime rubber substitutes were later molded into artificial 3D designs, such as falsies and implants, to uniformly pad the female form. Silicone, an engine lubricant developed to aid the war effort, was later used in cosmetics and relaunched in the mid-1960s for use in breast augmentation surgery. A key methodological contribution of my research comes from my focus on how materials’ physical properties—their materiality—shapes their use and meaning. The material- and artifact-led research is interdisciplinary, drawing on history of design and technology, fashion and design practice, the history of medicine, and critical theory on the body. 

About the Speaker

Isabelle Held is a history of design doctoral researcher at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Royal College of Art, London. Fully funded by a U.K. Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) scholarship, her dissertation is titled “The Bombshell Assembly Line: Military-Industrial Materials and the Shaping of Women’s Bodies in the USA, 1939–1976.” Selected for the UK AHRC International Placement Scheme, Isabelle spent six months working on a fellowship with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She has also been awarded the Henry Belin du Pont Fellowship at the Hagley Museum. 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.

About the Series

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.