06.08.2012  •  Art NEWS


HISTORY OF DESIGN •  RCA Graduate Interviews: Isabelle Held, History of Design MA, Bullet Bras and Bombshells


RCA 2012 : Isabelle Held (History of Design)

Location: Royal Albert Hall, London

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Isabelle was born in London in 1986. As a former burlesque dancer, she has always had an interest in 1950s pin-up culture and on a more theoretical level, the commodification and fetishisation of the female body throughout history.

One spring evening last year as she was walking home, she saw an advert for an opera about the life of the late glamour girl and actress Anna Nicole Smith. The poster featured a busty blonde opera singer with a low cut top with her round breasts at the centre of attention. But when did the ideal shape of breasts in popular culture change from the conical bullet bra ideal to the padded rounds of today’s t-shirt bras? This question was to form the basis of her History of Design masters thesis.

Can you tell us a bit about the work you chose to include in the final show?
As I studied a Humanities subject, the final piece I produced was a 30,000 word thesis, which is hardly suited to display in the RCA degree show. Instead, I chose to present a selection of the original primary sources I was working with, which I found had an engaging visual impact. The objects included a rare book by self-appointed US ‘beauty parlor surgeon’ Robert Franklyn titled ‘On Developing Bosom Beauty’, published in the 1960s and including original before and after photos.

Franklyn’s book was a key primary source for my 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.

Why did you decide to study at the RCA?
Having come from a practical background in video and illustration work in my undergraduate degree, I wanted to pursue my academic interests in design and fashion history on a postgraduate level. I interned in the Contemporary and Fashion departments at the Victoria and Albert Museum during my undergraduate studies and heard about the History of Design course which is run in collaboration between the museum and the RCA and thought it would be an ideal choice.

What is your most memorable experience at the RCA?
I have so many memorable experiences at the RCA. Graduating at the Royal Albert Hall with my family, friends and GoSee there felt very magical. Another highly memorable experience was being selected for the Bard Graduate Center exchange in New York City which provided me with four months accommodation in my second year and enabled me to carry out the US-based research for my thesis ‘Bullet Bras and Bombshells – The shaping of a conical design for bras and breasts in the USA 1930s–1960s’. It was the first time I had ever left Europe and it was an absolutely life-changing experience.

How did you celebrate finishing the degree?

I was so exhausted after handing in my 30,000 word dissertation! I went home and had a good sleep and then I was up working again the next day. I celebrated a little later on after graduation though.

How do you feel now that you have completed the degree?
I am relieved to have finished the degree. It was a challenging and exhausting two years but worth every minute of it. Even though I am glad to have finished, I have to admit that I sometimes get the occasional pangs of nostalgia for such a highly inspirational time.

And now for that dreaded question… what are your hopes and plans for the future?
At some point in the future I would ideally like to run my own small film production company as a collective with friends. We would like to make short documentaries about design history related subjects, going out to talk to eyewitnesses and recording their oral histories. We want to link spoken histories with visual material. I would really love to combine my practical skills in film and video editing with my academic interests in social design history.

What is your favourite place in London? Anywhere you find particularly inspiring?

Wow. I find London such an inspiring place. There are too many places to list here.

One of the first places that will always spring to mind though is the Deptford Waste Market in South East London. It really is a London treasure. A lot of junk to sift through but you can come out the other side with some of the most amazing finds. My illustration tutor in my undergraduate degree, Chris Ratcliffe always said that you can even find urns filled with human ash on the market, which could make for a macabre illustration project.

One of the strangest things I ever spotted there was an original 1960s plug-in vibrator, which I was really intrigued by, but too freaked out to take home with me as I would never have wanted to touch it.

Deptford market is open Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. There are great organic cafes and Jamaican patty shops dotted along Deptford High Street to serve all your refreshment needs. For Deptford Market get the Overground to New Cross and walk or a train to Deptford station.

Isabelle Held, History of Design MA

10 RCA Graduate Interviews 2012

Carlo Volpi , Menswear MA

Trine Hav Christensen, Womenswear MA

Fatma Bucak, Photography MA

Daniel Pollitt, Menswear MA

Alexander Lamb , Menswear MA

Isabelle Held, History of Design MA

Simon Foxall, Painting MA

Nathan Tom Pass, Textile MA

Hal Watts, Innovation Design Engineering MA

Michael Warren, Product Design MA