Friday, June 24, 2011

Abreast of Developments: The changing shape of decolletage in fashion

There have been many fashion histories about the trends in attractive body shape. This one examines on the changing shape of a lady's frontage in the changing fashion silhouette - a subject close to my heart (as it were!). It's been a long time coming (I'm trying to work through my "to blog" list), but as with any article summarising a century of fashion, the research has been a bit of a labour of love. I've tried to keep it short and sweet and focus purely on shape (the evolution of bra technology is a fascinating subject for another time) to avoid going off on yet another multi-part exhaustive history! It's still pretty image-heavy, but I hope you enjoy it.

Victorian Corsets Thrust the Bust High

During the Victorian era the focus was on the waist. A tiny waist was preferred, so corsets were worn and bust and hips emphasised with bustles and blousy designs to exaggerate the hourglass effect. Corsets pushed the breasts up and out, but their shape was really incidental to the overall silhouette.

Corset advert, 1882 (source)

The Pigeon-Breast

The Edwardian period brought the S-shape silhouette. The flat-fronted corsets which thrust the hips backwards also lowered the bustline, neatly demonstrated in this illustration from Ladies Home Journal, 1900, comparing the Victorian silhouette with the new shape:

As the era wore on, the low, pigeon chest became more pronounced, with the bust spilling over low-fronted corsets or shaped and padded in "figure builder" brassieres.

Blouses in Home Notes magazine, 1915

Lingerie in the Sears catalogue, 1915

Camisole illustration showing the low pigeon chest, 1917

Flappers and Flat-O-Form

You can see in the late 1910s that the chest is getting flatter, with the blousing moving lower to just above the waistline. In the early 1920s the blousiness started to disappear from bodices entirely, and by the mid 20s the fashionable figure was completely flat-chested.

Fashions in Pictorial Review, 1925

Lingerie was designed to help achieve this silhouette. Brassieres with brand names like "Flat-O-Form", "Boyshform" and "Sta-Flat" promised to impart "that boylike, flat appearance, assuring a charm to the figure that is so desirable for the modern frock".

Sears, 1925

In the late 20s the angular boyish silhouette softened slightly into "slim yet rounded lines". By 1929 "uplift model" brassieres were available, though still far outnumbered by minimiser bandeau styles.

Sears, 1929

Lift & Separate

These "rounded lines" filled out further still in the 1930s, so that by 1934 bust-enhancing bra padding was available to endow "the new full busted curves" upon the less voluptuous.

Sears, 1934

Sears, 1935

Maidenform had introduced shaped bra cups in the 1920s, and with the new curvy silhouette they gained popularity. By the late 30s a "high, rounded bustline" was desirable, and "lift and separate" was the key phrase in marketing the new cup-formed brassieres.

Sears, 1938

Sears, 1939

The Bullet Bra

The naturalistic, rounded bust shape of the 30s and early 40s gave way to a more structured, pointed shape by the late 40s. Dior's New Look brought back small waistlines and the hourglass silhouette, so - just as in the Victorian era - bustlines and hips were exaggerated to enhance the effect. "Sweater girls" of the 40s and 50s like Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Lana Turner et al further popularised the pointy-boobed look. Bust padding was sometimes used to fill out the bullet shape.

"Kestos" bullet bras, 1950

"Permalift" padded bullet bra, 1952

Maidenform launched its phenomenally successful "Chansonette" bra (the model for What Katie Did's bullet bra) in 1949. It went on to be the best-selling bra of the 1950s, with its "I dreamed I..." advertising campaign.

Maidenform Chansonette, 1964

Neat & Petite

The boxier fashions of the late 50s and early 1960s worked best on petite, small-breasted figures. This vogue for slender lines culminated in the Mod styles of the late 60s, with angular shift dresses and flat-chested models like Twiggy at the fashion fore.

1960s sewing patterns

The Natural Look

The late 60s and early 70s feminist movement reacted against 'restrictive' undergarments (though to be honest my bullet bra is the most comfortable I've ever owned, and I don't intend to go back to underwires!) which moulded the body into shapes supposedly designed to please men. This heralded a return to a more naturally rounded shape, and bras were designed with light support and little structure.

Maidenform bra, 1971

Meanwhile, the push-up Wonderbra was gaining popularity, so it's hard to pinpoint a definitive fashion shape for the bust of the 70s. The fashion industry remained geared to the small-breasted, if the pattern illustrations of the era are anything to go by. However the silhouette was less prescriptive, and many 70s styles, with their fit-and-flare shape, work on all bust sizes.

1970s sewing patterns

After the 70s the fashion bosom continued to rise and fall like the tide - the 1980s saw volume added everywhere with shoulder pads and blousy bodices. The 90s brought us heroin chic and flat chests on the catwalk, while Wonderbra and Ultrabra sales soared. As to the future, who knows - according to the way fashion cycles maybe the Edwardian pigeon chest is due for a revival!


  1. I always learn so much from your blog, this is a great post!
    From Carys of La Ville Inconnue

  2. Very informative and interesting- as always! Great pictures as well. I'd love to try on a bullet bra.

  3. Very interesting. It's crazy how much what is considered "beautiful" changes. I certainly hope the pigeon chest doesn't come back! lol.

  4. Great post, this was so interesting to read! I don't personally like those bullet bras.. :S but somehow I loove the pigeon chest figure! I adore edwardian fashion, so .. :D 30's figure is also very nice, so feminine.

    Thank you so much for this, gave me so much more information! :)

  5. Very interesting post! When I recently read that today's "shapewear" kinda resembles a return to the corset-mad eras, I started wondering about the evolution in this area - your post here gives a wonderful overview.
    I certainly hope those pigeon breasts won't return, tho' (funny to see how opinions on this one differ, though - LOL!) - nor the flapper flatness (I mean, wouldn't that hurt? Or ruin your chest structure completely?)

    Thank you for putting the time in this research!


  6. Wow, that's really comprehensive!

    It's really interesting how womens underwear has changed over the years along with the prevailinbg fashion in body shapes.

  7. i would have done a great job in the 20s since I'm very small busted. . .ugh. that pigeon chest is awful!!! I am glad it was so short lived.

  8. Fantastic post, I love the bullet bra look the most. I always was naive and thought everyone had flat chests in the 1920s!

  9. I scored some brand new maidenform bra's from the 60s in a thrift store and I was quite delighted by how 'perky' my assets looked as they have a slightly cone shape to them. They created a totally different look to modern bra's.

  10. Gosh this really underlines how important the right foundation wear, bra in particular, is for a vintage or period look. My memory of the 1970's was of tee shirt bras being the biz. Wonderbras didn't get onto my radar until the 1980's but they could have been in the UK and US. The thing is that in the 1970's there were two noticeably different trends - the hippy style that was a carry on from the 1960's, and the more conservative or even sexy structured looks. Cleavage made a revival in the 1970's even as going braless was gaining popularity. I don't think this splitting of the ways which has lasted since, existed before the late 60's. Interesting!

  11. Excellent post, very interesting. Isn't it funny how ideas on what is attractive can change in so short a time!!!! Lol. X


I'd love to hear your thoughts!


Related Posts with Thumbnails