By Ashley Altadonna
In 1882, American surgeon William Halsted performed the first radical mastectomy. What would later become known as the Halsted Mastectomy involved the removal of the breast and lymphatic tissue, as well as the pectoralis muscle and axillary lymph nodes. While Halsted’s method is cited as a milestone in the treatment of breast cancer, many women understandably felt the loss of their breasts hurt their body image.
Medical professionals and ambitious inventors have sought to develop breast forms that simulate the appearance, feel, and movement of natural breast tissue. Though initially intended for breast cancer survivors, many crossdressers and trans or non-binary women have also used breast forms to create a feminine appearance, and as breast prosthetics.
In the early 19th century, individuals who wished to use breast forms likely went without or made their own by stuffing hand-sewn bags with items like cotton, wool, feathers, sponges, silk, rags, or hair. It wasn’t until January of 1874 that the US Patent Office issued its first patent (No. US 146.805) for a “breast pad” to Fredrick Cox. Cox’s invention introduced the basic elements of the breast form, a casing filled with an artificial material to substitute for breast tissue. His design consisted of air-filled rubber pads sewn into a cotton casing which was worn over the breast. Similarly, in 1885, Charles L. Morehouse patented a solid rubber inflatable breast pad, which was mean to “fit well and snugly on the natural breast, […] not cause pain or inconvenience, and give the body a fine appearance and an elegant shape.”
Future inventors, however, criticized Cox and Morehouse’s air-filled designs as being fallible to punctures and stressed the importance of using solid materials to fill their forms. In her 1904 patent for an “Artificial Breast,” Laura Wolfe described her design as being “less liable to incur humiliation upon the wearer than similar devices,” since it would retain its shape even if punctured, thanks to its down feather or silk floss filling. Wolfe also added extra material to the sides of her forms to better create the actual shape of breasts, as opposed to simply a circular protrusion. Wolfe proposed that the rubber casing of her forms could be dyed to match the skin tone of the wearer. Unfortunately, the idea of a natural-colored breast form seems to have been forgotten or ignored until the later part of the 20th century.
While their use as a post-surgical prosthetic was certainly the main selling-point, many designers began to note the aesthetic properties of their form as well. In 1922 Laura Mailleue wrote in her patent application for a “Surgical Breast Substitute” that her forms might be “finished with a border of lace, if desired, thus giving an attractive appearance to the device.” The language Mailleue used to describe her forms was more in line with feminine fashion accessories than as a medical device. It should be noted that the creative and innovative designs by women like Wolfe, Mailleue, and others carved out a niche in what was, at the time, a male-dominated market.
Still, many of the forms from this period had design drawbacks. Often, they required a special belt or elastic bands to keep them in place. Many could not be used during certain activities such as swimming. They frequently lacked an adequate means of ventilation, which caused the wearer to sweat and for skin irritations to occur. Depending on the materials used, the forms could become dented or displaced, and were often difficult to clean. In 1949, two women, Mildred Wright and Dora Gates, filed a patent for a “Restoration Surgical Breast” (US Patent US 2.651.783), which finally addressed many of these problems. Rather than trying to create an idealized form, they proposed that manufacturers ought to replicate the size and shape of a woman’s remaining breast. Their forms used inexpensive materials, rubber and foam, which could be easily cleaned with soap and water and be worn while swimming. Best of all, their forms could be worn in a regular bra.
The mid twentieth century marked a major turning point for breast forms for several reasons. Initially, individuals were patenting designs, usually as medical prosthetics. By the 1950s, more companies began to patent and sell breast forms, as well as pads and enhancers. Breast forms were starting to be sold and marketed by lingerie and corsetry businesses as a way for any woman to create a fuller bust. Advances in chemical engineering during World War II also created vast improvements in the materials that forms could be made from. The first silicone breast forms were introduced by the Dow-Corning company in the late 1960s. Silicone forms were promoted as a safer alternative to silicone injections or implants after problems and health risks from these procedures became known.
In the 1970s and 80s, the breast form industry continued to grow and evolve. Companies began to offer a wider range of styles, sizes, and shapes of forms. Forms manufactured in darker skin tones, long overdue, were finally being offered as an option for people of color. As concerns about the risks of silicone implants continued, companies like Nearly Me® founded in 1976 by Ruth Handler, (best known as the creator of the Barbie Doll and former CEO of the Mattel Corporation), entered the breast form marketplace. By 1980 they had sold over a million dollars worth of breast forms.
While most companies were still selling their breast forms as either medical prosthetics or as beauty products for cisgender women, some companies began to recognize that breast forms also were of interest to members of the transgender, drag, and cross-dressing communities. Companies like Nearly Me® began branding many of their products specifically for trans and non-binary folks under the name Transform®. With the rise of the internet in the early 90s, the trans community had access to numerous of types of breast forms and feminine expression products right at their fingertips.
As breast forms have gone from being made by a handful of inventors to being mass produced by large companies, they have also moved from medical prosthesis to commercialized beauty products. Today, breast forms come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colors, and materials. These forms be easily attached via tapes, sprays, or already come with an adhesive backing. They are more comfortable and realistic, in both appearance and to the touch. As more manufacturers embrace trans and non-binary communities, hopefully we will see more products designed to meet our unique needs.
Kirsten E. Gardner, “From Cotton to Silicone: Breast Prosthesis Before 1950”, in Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics Katherine Ott, David Serlin, Stephen Mihm, (NYU Press, 2002) 102 – 116. https://books.google.com/books?id=LKaBtG67akwC&dq=early+breast+forms
Kirsten E. Gardner, “Hiding the Scars: History of Breast Prosthesis After Mastectomy Since 1945”, in Beauty and Business: Commerce, Gender, and Culture in Modern America Philip Scranton, (Rutledge, 2014) 306 – 326. https://books.google.com/books?id=9BcCAwAAQBAJ&dq=1960%27s+breast+form