The disappearing and reappearing breast: Décolletage through the centuries 1720, 1820 and 1920
No one can forget the great wardrobe malfunction of 2004. Who could have predicted that in the era of easily available internet porn one celebrity nip slip would cause such a stir? But that’s exactly what happened when Janet Jackson bared her breast to everyone watching the Super Bowl or with access to Youtube. That slip up went on to become the most searched phenomenon on the internet. But have bosoms and visible nips always scandalized the masses? Not so! We can trace our prudery to the Victorian era when high collars won the day. As far back as the Middle Ages plunging necklines in dress were the norm and depending on one’s rank or class it wasn’t unheard of to go bare breasted in public.
1720s In 18th Century Europe the French nobility called the shots in fashion and nip slips were practically an occupational hazard of courtly life. The aesthetic conventions of the time dictated that women wear whalebone “stomachers,” V-shaped dress inserts which forced women’s breasts up and out. At the same time necklines dipped to almost the level of the nipple. A French or English noblewoman in 1720 would not raise eyebrows if she showed a little aureola or even one or both nipples. Breasts unspoiled by breastfeeding were symbols of innocence, maidenhood and even wealth, since the very well off could save their shape by employing wet nurses to do the work of breast-feeding for them. It is rumored that even Queens were thought to have gone bare breasted in public.
Queen Marie-Antoinette, Versailles, France1820s Fast forward a hundred years. The French nobility has met its well-deserved end and the larger than life dresses that characterized the reign of Marie Antoinette dwindled in popularity as people distanced themselves from those lavish signifiers of French excess. Dresses scaled down in both girth and flamboyance. Napoleon’s wife Josephine helped to popularize the columnar silhouette of the classical Greco-Roman style dresses that were all the rage in the Regency era. Necklines on these high-waisted gowns remained as low as before, at least in the evenings, but the penchant for pushed-up exaggerated breasts was ditched in favor of a fuller, more natural silhouette. Women who donned these diaphanous gowns wore lightweight stays or no support at all. In some dresses the breasts were even visible through the fabric. Women were said to have doused themselves in water to further achieve the clingy look of the period. Later in the era wearers donned bone or wooden corsets meant to stiffen a woman’s carriage and to slightly separate and lift the breast but the purpose of these corsets was to effect the create a shelf for the breast rather than push them up and they didn’t bind the waist as later corsets did. The so-called Empire waist silhouette with it’s tantalizingly displayed breast retained its popularity until the middle of the 1820s when waistlines begin gradually to fall back towards the natural waist culminating in the extremely corseted waist and mostly covered breasts of the Victorian Era.
1920s The rule of Queen Victoria lasted over half a century and by the time of the Roaring Twenties most young women had enough of the restrictive clothing and stuffy values of the previous generation. In a push against the restrictive mores of the era, “Liberated” women were cutting their hair and unlacing their corsets in droves. The hourglass silhouette that predominated for most of the 19th century was outmoded, replaced gradually with a more tubular shape. Cleavage was out and a young boyish athleticism was in. Fashion magazines celebrated the ﬂat
chested, compelling those more generously endowed to turn to breast binding to achieve the popular look. The boob was out of view and would not return again until the 1930s.