I don’t know that it’s possible to watch Mad Men without experiencing a healthy envy of Betty Draper’s flawless white, suburban housewife aesthetic. Produced by Matthew Weiner and created by Lionsgate Television, Mad Men (2007–15) brilliantly narrates the gripping Cold War story of mysterious executive Donald Draper and his colorful coworkers and acquaintances at an advertising firm in New York City. The show is widely known for its attention to period detail, its fabulous costume and make-up design, and its relatively accurate portrayal of post-WWII upper-class, white America. Regardless of one’s opinion of her actual character, no one can deny that Don Draper’s wife Betty, with her perfectly coiffed curls and flawless lipstick, knows how to wear the hell out of a swing dress. Even if 1950s housewife chic isn’t your style (and it’s definitely not mine), Betty Draper’s perfectly manicured nails powerfully evoke stereotypical notions of femininity in postwar America.
As I watched the show (again) this past summer, I found myself aimlessly poking around vintage clothing websites, particularly in search of Betty-inspired nightgowns. In my search, I fell into a deep vintage clothing rabbit hole. I became particularly fascinated with the “bullet bra,” the conically-shaped corset bra popularized after WWII, and I was quite surprised by how much it looked both uncomfortable and violent. This observation prompted my historian brain to pull away from online shopping and turn to actual research about underwear and femininity during the mid-century. It quickly became apparent that atomic age culture of the 1950s and Cold War anxieties are clearly visible in the feminine undergarments of the time. I soon realized that the bullet-bra style we now consider to be quirky and vintage actually speaks to much deeper American patriarchal attitudes about the explosive — and ultimately dangerous — nature of female sexuality in the postwar period.
In the years immediately following World War II, Americans were desperate to feel safe. And while that base human desire makes logical sense after decades of tumultuous global conflict and economic meltdown, the ways in which Americans latched onto the elusive idea of security was less straightforward. As the smoke cleared, and the United States and the Soviet Union rose from the ashes as the era’s dominant global powers, a pervasive fear of communism and nuclear fallout entrenched itself deeply into the American psyche. The United States government leapt into the atomic age armed with the strategy of containment, or preventing the spread of communism. If the US could confine communism’s political ideology and practice, it could mitigate its global impact, including on American soil. From a military perspective, this strategy made sense. But this formidable notion of containment soon became powerfully intertwined with cultural understandings of American patriotism, and it quickly adopted unique life of its own within the domestic confines of the United States.
One of the most salient ways that white, middle-class Americans in the postwar period began to conceptualize security was through suburban abundance.1 During this period, consumerism became synonymous with patriotism because capitalism (theoretically) allowed people from all backgrounds to work hard and obtain the American Dream. As its antithesis, communism would most certainly rescind those opportunities. In this way, everyday Americans could defend themselves and their families against communism by actively participating in what historian Lizabeth Cohen calls “the Consumer’s Republic.”2 What ensued was the rise of residential shopping centers, supermarkets, and chic pastel-colored appliances, all ultimately geared to attract increasing numbers of suburban homemakers. Even today, powerful imagery of sprawling neighborhoods with perfectly cut lawns, faithful dogs, and bikes strewn across the sidewalk outside urban city centers evoke the notion of “the good ole’ days,” and even the elusive idea of the American Dream itself.
As white Americans worked hard to build this utopia for the idyllic nuclear family, a particularly toxic emphasis on domesticating sexuality as a defense against the spread of communism took root in suburbia. Historian Elaine Tyler May argues that atomic-age anxieties resulted in couples marrying younger and younger. To protect the suburban home, young men and women had to keep their sexual urges under control. While the United States military fought containment battles abroad in an effort to confine communism to faraway places, the domestic struggle to protect Americans from disorder depended entirely on the sanctity of family life in whitewashed suburbia. In this way, anxious Americans began to link unstable family life, especially if it resulted from sexual promiscuity or homosexuality, with potential communist takeover. This logic, then, necessitated that American men be strong, protective, and masculine because their virile chivalry provided pillars for the American way of life in the postwar period. On the flip side, wives needed to be docile, attentive, and sensuous, but only enough to keep their husbands interested and satisfied and not so much that it caused disruption to the stability of their home. As a result, advertising, media, and even government propaganda began to promote clear linkages between female sexuality and dangerous weaponry. This subliminal messaging implied that female sexuality was specifically destructive. Just like communism, it needed to be contained.
This duality of female sexuality as something that was both submissive and explosive paralleled the rhetoric of the nuclear arms race. May explains this connection as one between “taming fears of the atomic age” and “taming women.”3 This ideological linkage made words like “bombshell” or “knockout” synonymous with sexual attractiveness. May argues that this Cold War emphasis on dominating female sexuality can be described as a cultural push for “sexual containment.” She goes on to suggest that the evolution of women’s fashion in the first half of the twentieth century displays the transition from flapper aesthetic that evoked “boyish freedom” to the “quasi-Victorian long, wide skits, crinolines, and frills…with exaggerated bust lines and curves that created the aura of untouchable eroticism” that characterized the atomic age.4 She argues that “the body itself was protected in a fortress of undergarments, warding off sexual contact but promising erotic excitement in the marital bed.”5 Enter the bullet bra.
Maidenform (a New York bra company ironically co-founded by a Russian woman) manufactured the first conically shaped bullet bra in 1949 and formally dubbed it the Chansonette bra. Popularized by Marilyn Monroe with her infamously busty sweater look, the bra became fashionable because of its alluring fullness even when covered modestly. Culturally, its shape led it to become known as the “bullet” or “torpedo” bra because it evoked weaponry in an age obsessed with impending atomic doom. In some cases, the style of bullet bras even resembled armor, and the futuristic design evoked international obsession with the space race. These bras provided visual evidence that American women’s bodies were prepared for atomic war, as they also actively worked to fortify their homes and communities against the threat of communism by faithfully purchasing the next best appliance GM put on the market.
The style of the bullet bra provides undeniable visual evidence that the American public was obsessed, consciously or not, with the connection between dominating female sexuality and preventing the spread of communism. Through the melding of Victorian lingerie structures with this weaponized military aesthetic of the missile breast, the style of the bullet bra/corset displays that it wasn’t just about containing female sexuality. It was also about showing the world, especially the Soviet Union, that America had successfully done so. Through equating female sexuality with danger, disorder, and nuclear disaster in such a visible way, American postwar consensus culture viewed the female body as something to be equally feared and contained. And this ultimately begs the question: In an age where containing explosive forces dominated American public policy, was this trendy armor disguised as lingerie designed to keep men out? Or was it strategically utilized to keep women in?
Brown, Kate. Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Fraterrigo, Elizabeth. Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Due to this article’s brevity and its emphasis on white patriarchy and crafted American standards of masculinity, I analyzed Cold War social trends within white, middle class, suburban American culture and did not incorporate the experiences of sub or counter cultural groups/movements. The sources listed for further reading discuss the postwar experiences of the LGTBTQ+ community, communities of color, and the sexual counterculture, which are critical contributions to the historiography of this time period. Return to text.
- Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Knopf, 2003), 5. Return to text.
- Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 105. Return to text.
- May, Homeward Bound, 108. Return to text.
- May, 108. Return to text.