Friday, 23 May 2014

Cleavage - An Uplifting History

Bridgette Bardot in a black dress showing cleavage
Actress Bridgette Bardot in 1957


Noun. Early 19th century.
[from CLEAVE verb to split, separate or sever from by dividing or splitting, come apart + -AGE.]

1(a) The action of splitting a crystal or rock along a line of natural fissure;
generally the action of splitting or dividing.
Also, the state of being split, a division;
the manner or direction in which a mineral or rock or generally a party, opinion, etc., tends to split. E19

1(b) BIOLOGY. Cell division; especially of a fertilized egg cell. L19

2 The hollow between a woman's breasts, especially as exposed by a low-cut garment. colloquial. M20

Cleavage is a fascinating word, derived from the Old English cleofan, which itself is the counterpart of the Old Saxon klioban, a cognate of ... oh who am I kidding? It's not in the least bit interesting, coming quite predictably from the verb to cleave. However, as Lexicolatry has already covered boobs, bras, buttocks and bosoms with adolescent enthusiasm, it seems appropriate that I should also peer into the dark recesses of cleavage. And, as it happens, those recesses are jolly interesting, as I'm sure you'll agree.
Note: If you've arrived hoping to learn about the wonders of geological cleavage or, even more exciting, political cleavage and discrete voter blocs, you're going to be disappointed. This post is about boobs.
A vintage French ad for corsets showing various amounts of cleavage

The History of Cleavage

It's fair to say that someone's attitude toward the showing of cleavage is directly influenced by one's place in history, with fashions and conventions variously rising, falling and heaving with regards a woman's bosom. If you lived during the Middle Ages in Europe, you wouldn't have been in the least bit perturbed by the sight of cleavage, either in person or art. Paintings of this period often depict young women with breasts exposed, but usually to signify fertility rather than sexuality. Even during the Elizabethan period, when long dresses and frilly collars had become the norm, cleavage was still fashionable at formal events, even on official portraits of Queen Elizabeth. In our liberal age, modern portraits of Elizabeth II have been considerably more chaste - can you imagine the ruckus if they weren't?

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I showing cleavage
The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
Isaac Oliver (1556-1617)
This acceptance of the intermammary cleft continued until the Victorian Era, when prudery prevailed and it became the norm for women to cover up all the way to the neck. Other female body parts were also added to the May Cause Scandal list, including ankles, and these attitudes proved persuasively persistent. When John Singer Sargant presented his Portrait of Madame X, with its open depiction of the upper part of the model's chest and one of the shoulder straps from her evening dress loose, it caused such scandal at its reception in Paris in 1884 that he had to leave the city permanently, though only after first trying to mollify the outraged critics by repainting in an upright strap. From a modern, Lady Gaga-era perspective, such fuss seems completely baffling.

A woman in a black evening dress with a small amount of cleavage but her upper chest and neck exposed
The scandalous Portrait of Madame X
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
While such Victorian attitudes persisted well into the 20th century, they slowly relaxed, particularly in the age of cinema, and various icons of culture started to display more cleavage, now associated with sexuality rather than fertility, with some such as Jayne Mansfield became famous for it. While we no longer look down on cleavage in the same way, it still has the enticement to draw considerable comment, such as when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was photographed in eveningwear that displayed ample cleavage, and when a singer like, say, Katy Perry appears anywhere or does anything.

But here's one last and curious fact about cleavage: love it or hate it, be scandalised or titillated by it, it's completely artificial, a construction of fashion and a multi-billion dollar industry that seeks to mould, shape, lift and pull women's breasts into whatever the convention of the day is. In an article for The New York Times, plastic surgeon Gerard H. Pitman dryly notes: "You can't create cleavage unless the breasts are pushed together."

Sophia Loren casts a jealous look in the direction of Jayne Mansfield's cleavage
Sophia Loren eyes Jayne Mansfield's ample décolletage in 1957
Are you a fan of cleavage?

Are you scandalised, horrified or electrified by it?

Do please décollate your comments in the box below.
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  1. Oh my. Someone was dipping the Claymore ;) before taking helm of the keyboard. XD

    For me it's a natural thing so I'm not "touched" by cleavage. It's... there. You grow up expecting them and if you have a certain knowledge of genes and inheritance you might entertain yourself, during childhood, wondering who will you take them from - Mother, Aunt Chery, Cousin Tati (it helps the development of sweet and calm childhood that Heidi is no Kate Price). And then one day they just kind of show up - I know most boys think it's something short of the Adam rib miracle but, let me tell you, it isn't. No revelation. No promises. No wondering which part of man would God use to make them ;) ahahahah (I always use that one when men in the house are praising some Jayne's intellect ahahah)
    So no scandal, horror or electricity whatsoever from me.
    It pains me to think that despite good movies she did or will do in her career the only Oscar Julia Roberts received was, in fact, honoring the neckline :( (and after watching McConaughey speech last year I know Leonardo DiCaprio will never get his due... unless he grows some... cleavage ahahahah which I wouldn't recommend not even for the deserved Oscar. "Don't do that, Leo Dear. Go read Cindie Crawford quote on b***bs. Trust her!"

    1. You think Julia Roberts only got acclaim in Erin Brockovich because of her cleavage? I would beg to differ on that. In fact, I can't think of any other film she's done that's of the same calibre (although I did enjoy Charlotte's Web).

  2. Intermammary cleft... that one made me giggle. I can only wish, hope and pray for an impressive cleavage like the ladies pictured above. Put a little boy in a bikini and you've basically got me on a hot summer's day.

    All jokes aside though, if I were a man, or a woman attracted to other women, I'd definitely be the kind that prefers boobs over ass. Sorry, Ed. Des goûts et des couleurs...

    1. By the look of Sophia in that picture she agrees with you ;)

    2. I know it might sound like I made up the term 'intermammary cleft' to be funny, but it is actually a proper medical term. Honest!

  3. That picture of Sophia and Jayne is priceless!
    Poor Sophia didn't even have the option of breast enhancement back then! :)


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