In the late 1970s, artist Anne Gauldin was making plaster casts of breasts in a Pasadena warehouse where her art collective held their regular consciousness-raising sessions. “We were sitting around having a meeting, and I was putting plaster on everyone’s breasts,” she said. Afterward, during her lunch breaks, Gauldin painted a thin coat of latex on each of the molds in the back of her Datsun hatchback. When the latex dried, she sewed thirteen of the breasts into a pink dress in the style of a 1950s diner uniform. The garment, affectionately known as the Breast Dress, is now an important piece of feminist art history.
Gauldin, a California native, was en route to graduate school in New York City when she first saw a flyer for the Woman’s Building at Sisterhood Bookstore in Los Angeles. Founded by Judy Chicago, Arlene Raven, and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, the building was an epicenter of the emerging field of feminist art in the 1970s. Artists, rebelling against the male-dominated art world, were developing a distinctly feminine aesthetic by using materials, techniques, and imagery that reflected female experiences. “The energy in the building was electrifying,” Gauldin said. She never made it to the East Coast. Instead, she enrolled in the Feminist Studio Workshop and The Waitresses was born.
Co-founded by Gauldin and artist Jerri Allyn, the performance art group The Waitresses embodied a collaborative, feminist ethos. It eventually expanded to fourteen members.
At this time, under the new mantra “the personal is political,” artists were beginning to mine lived experiences as serious subject matter. “The [critiques in art school] were about form and style,” Allyn remembered, “I was making ceramic cats with big pussies on them. And definitely, nobody wanted to hear that I was waitressing my way through art school and that I felt like a piece of meat.” Gauldin had been a cocktail waitress and had gotten fired after refusing to sit on her boss’s lap.
In a 2007 parade, The Waitresses revived the All City Waitress Marching Band, first performed at the Pasadena Doo Dah Parade in 1979, in support of the Pay Equity Act.
Predecessors of activist art collectives like The Guerilla Girls and Gran Fury, and working against the backdrop of grassroots campaigns such as Wages for Housework and the Equal Rights Amendment, The Waitresses used art and often humor to raise awareness and champion social change. In these colorful performances, they explored the multiple stereotypes of the waitress—as maternal nurturer, servant, and sex object—while communicating the bleak realities of sexual discrimination and wage inequality. (One persona, “Wonder Waitress,” appeared at a 1979 labor organizing conference to reveal that less than 1% of waitresses were unionized.)
Gauldin created the Breast Dress for the character, Great Goddess Diana, a symbol of fertility and sustenance, who appeared during The Waitress’s first series of performances, “Ready to Order,” held in different Venice restaurants in the spring of 1978. Gauldin was inspired by Diana of Ephesus, and other ancient female monuments she toured in Europe. “It was like reclaiming female power that had been lost and buried for centuries,” she said.
In 2018, the dress came to the Getty Research Institute as part of the Woman’s Building’s archive. It has aged and deteriorated, and Getty conservator Rachel Rivenc and her team are experimenting with different ways to conserve the Breast Dress in order to allow viewers the chance to experience an important artifact of the women’s movement. “It’s a really tricky object in terms of conservation. Some plastics are notoriously unstable. Latex for example is very sensitive to oxygen,” she said.
The fact that the dress has decayed with age, Rivenc said, is also meaningful. While the videos preserve The Waitresses in a state of perpetual youth, beautiful by the standards of society, the dress is marked by the passage of time, evidenced by the sagging latex breasts, deteriorating and discolored nipples, and soiled cloth. And because the breasts were created from plaster casts, the dress bears the traces of the bodies of the women who created it. “There’s still so much taboo around women aging and their beauty,” Rivenc said. Aged more than forty years, the dress now celebrates an inspiring moment in history, and in some ways is a testament to the beauty of growing old.
The materiality of the dress, its physical presence, possesses a unique power, said Rivenc. “The object gives you an immediacy,” she said. “You can touch it, and you see how it looks and feels,” she said. “It just captures the imagination. It’s such a quirky and interesting object. And it’s humble at the same time because it’s not a blue-chip art object. It’s a humble performance prop slash archive object, but one that tells a really great story.”
The Woman’s Building processing project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, ST-03-17-0007-17