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

Isabelle Held

PhD Viva completed 2019-2020

‘Miss Atomic Bomb of Nevada, Lee Merlin’ photographed by Don English for the Las Vegas Sun, 1955

Isabelle 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.