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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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!