Cleavage (breasts)

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This article is about the part of a woman's anatomy revealed by a wide neckline. For the neckline itself, see Décolletage.
A woman's cleavage

Cleavage, anatomically known as the intermammary cleft or the intermammary sulcus, is the space between a woman's breasts, lying over the sternum. In popular culture, it is often defined by garments with low necklines, such as ball gowns, evening gowns, lingerie, and swimwear, that expose or highlight cleavage.

Most people in Western culture, both male and female, consider breasts an important aspect of femininity and many women use cleavage to enhance their physical and sexual attractiveness and to improve their sense of femininity. Some people regard display of cleavage as a form of feminine flirting or seduction, within the confines of community, peer group and personal standards of modesty, as much as for its aesthetic or erotic effect. Most men derive erotic pleasure from seeing a woman's cleavage,[1] and some people derive pleasure in their female partner exposing cleavage. Other groups, however, such as those subject to gymnophobia, may feel uncomfortable with the sight of a woman's cleavage or object to low-cut clothing for modesty or other reasons.

In Western and some other societies, there are differences of opinion as to how much cleavage exposure is acceptable in public.[2] In contemporary Western society, the extent to which a woman may expose her breasts depends on social and cultural context. Though displaying cleavage can be permissible in many settings, it may be prohibited by dress codes in settings such as workplaces, churches, and schools, where exposure of any part of female breasts may be considered inappropriate. Low or plunging necklines expose the top or space between a woman's breasts. Showing the nipples or areolae is almost always considered immodest and in some instances is viewed as lewd or indecent behavior.

Cleavage terms[edit]

Bottom cleavage at a cosplay exhibition

The International Federation of Associations of Anatomists (IFAA) uses the terms "intermammary sulcus" or "intermammary cleft" when referring to the area of cleavage between the breasts not including the breasts. For legal purposes it was noted by the United States federal courts that "anal cleft or cleavage" and "cleavage of the female breast" are so imprecise as to provide no guidance in defining them.[3]

Medically, the "width" of a woman's cleavage is determined by the attachment points of her breast tissue to the periosteal tissue covering breast bone. If a woman has breast implants positioned in the sub-muscular region, her cleavage is also defined to an extent by the medial attachments of the pectoralis major muscle. Implants do not by themselves make a woman's cleavage wider unless the physician overextended or stretched the lateral dissection from the contraction of the pectoralis major muscle.[4]

Significant related terms are:


Frans Hals. Gypsy Girl. 1628-30. Oil on wood, 58 x 52 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris
Bartholomeus van der Helst. Anna du Pire as Granida. 1660. Oil on canvas, 70 x 58 cm. National Gallery, Prague

Age of acceptability[edit]

In Europe during the Middle Ages, when women wore shapeless clothing, art frequently portrayed women with one or more of their breasts exposed to signify fertility rather than sexuality.[14] Décolletage was often a feature of the dress of the late Middle Ages. This continued through the Victorian period. Gowns that exposed a woman's neck and top of her chest were very common and non-controversial in Europe from at least the 11th century until the Victorian period in the 19th century. Ball or evening gowns especially featured low square décolletage designed to display and emphasize cleavage.[15][16] The wearing of low-cut dresses that exposed breasts was considered more acceptable than it is today—with a woman's bared legs, ankles, or shoulders being considered to be more risqué than exposed breasts.[17]

In the 14th Century, necklines lowered, clothes tightened and breasts were once again flaunted. It was during the Renaissance period that the corset was born. Breasts were pushed up, pushed together and molded into firm protruding decorations that emphasized breasts to the maximum.[14] In 1450, Agnès Sorel, mistress to Charles VII of France, is credited with starting a fashion when she wore deep low square décolleté gowns with fully bared breasts in the French court.[18] Other aristocratic women of the time who were painted with breasts exposed included Simonetta Vespucci, whose portrait with exposed breasts was painted by Piero di Cosimo in c.1480.

In many European societies between the Renaissance and the 19th century, wearing low-cut dresses that exposed breasts was more acceptable than today; with a woman's bared legs, ankles, or shoulders being considered to be more risqué than exposed breasts.[19] In aristocratic and upper-class circles the display of breasts was at times regarded as a status symbol, as a sign of beauty, wealth or social position.[20] The bared breast even invoked associations with nude sculptures of classical Greece that were exerting an influence on art, sculpture, and architecture of the period.[21] After the French Revolution décolletage become larger in the front and less in the back.[22]

During the 16th century, women's fashions with exposed breasts were common in society, from queens to common prostitutes, and emulated by all classes.[23] Anne of Brittany has also been painted wearing a dress with a square neckline. Low square décolleté styles were popular in England in the 17th century and even Queen Mary II and Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I of England, were depicted with fully bared breasts; and architect Inigo Jones designed a masque costume for Henrietta Maria that fully revealed both of her breasts.[21][23] During the fashions of the period 1795–1820, many women wore dresses that bared the bosom and shoulders.

Age of controversy[edit]

During the Victorian period, social attitudes required women to cover their bosom in public. For ordinary wear, high collars were the norm. Towards the end of the Victorian period (end 19th century) the full collar was the fashion, though some décolleté dresses were worn on formal occasions. (See 1880s in fashion.)

During the French Enlightenment, there was a debate as to whether a woman's breasts were merely a sensual enticement or rather a natural gift to be offered from mother to child. In Alexandre Guillaume Mouslier de Moissy's 1771 play The True Mother (La Vraie Mère), the title character rebukes her husband for treating her as merely an object for his sexual gratification: "Are your senses so gross as to look on these breasts – the respectable treasures of nature – as merely an embellishment, destined to ornament the chest of women?"[24] Nearly a century later, also in France, a man from the provinces who attended a Court ball at the Tuilleries in Paris in 1855 was deeply shocked by the décolleté dresses and is said to have exclaimed in disgust: "I haven't seen anything like that since I was weaned!"[25]

In 1884, a portrait painting by John Singer Sargent of American-born Paris socialite, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, was criticised[26] for depicting her in a sleek black dress displaying what was considered scandalous cleavage and her right shoulder strap fallen off her shoulder. The controversy was so great that he reworked the painting to move the shoulder strap from her upper arm to her shoulder, and Sargent left Paris for London in 1884 his reputation in tatters. The painting was named "Portrait of Madame X".[27][28]

See also: Dress code

Age of reintroduction[edit]

Early 20th century glamour photography showing cleavage
Marilyn Monroe displaying cleavage in Some Like it Hot (1959)

Clergymen all over the world became shocked when it became fashionable, around 1913, for dresses to be worn with modest round or V-shaped necklines. In the German Empire, for example, all Roman Catholic bishops joined in issuing a pastoral letter attacking the new fashions.[29] Fashions became more restrained in terms of décolletage, while exposure of the leg became more accepted in Western societies, during World War I and remained so for nearly half a century.[30]

In 1953, Hollywood film The French Line was found objectionable under the Hays Code because of Jane Russell's "breast shots in bathtub, cleavage and breast exposure" while some of her décollete gowns were thought "...intentionally designed to give a bosom peep-show effect beyond even extreme decolletage."[31] But other actresses defied the then standards. For example, Gina Lollobrigida raised eyebrows with her famous low-cut dress in 1960, and other celebrities, performers and models followed suit, and the public was not far behind. Low-cut styles of various depths are now common in many situations. During the 1950s, Hollywood and the fashion industry successfully promoted large cleaved bustlines (and falsies). In the late 1960s, erogenous attention began to shift from the large bust to the trim lower torso, reasserting the need to diet, especially as new clothing fashions—brief, sheer, and close fitting- prohibited heavy reliance on foundation lingerie. Legs were relatively less emphasized as elements of beauty.[32]

From the 1960s onward, however, greater sexual permissiveness led to increasing displays of cleavage in films and television (Jane Russell and Elizabeth Taylor were the biggest stars to be known for their cleavage revelation[33]), and in everyday life, and low-cut dress styles became very common, even for casual wear.[34] During a short period in 1964, "topless" dress designs appeared at fashion shows, but those who wore the dresses in public found themselves arrested on indecency charges.[35] Cleavage revealing fashion still remains a matter of controversy. In the United States, in two separate incidents in 2007, Southwest Airlines crews asked travelers to modify their clothing, to wear sweaters, or to leave the plane because the crew did not consider the amount of cleavage displayed acceptable.[36] In Langley, British Columbia, a young woman was sent home from her high school for wearing a top that her principal deemed inappropriate because “it showed too much cleavage”.[37][38][39]

German Chancellor Angela Merkel created controversy when she wore a low-cut evening gown to the opening of the Oslo Opera House in 2008,[40][41] U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton and British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith drew attention for wearing low-cut blouses that revealed a small amount of cleavage, resulting in comments in the Washington Post and the New York Times.[42][40] Vera Lengsfeld, the Conservative Christian Democratic Union candidate for Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district, used pictures of herself and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in low-cut dresses during her political campaign. Facing a tough campaign, she posted 750 provocative campaign posters accompanied by the slogan "We Have More to Offer." In a tough campaign, she wanted to draw attention to "serious election issues." The posters had a positive impact.[43]

Cleavage enhancement[edit]

Main article: Cleavage enhancement


Wonderbra push-up bra

Many women regard breasts as an important female secondary sex characteristic,[44] and a factor in their sexual attractiveness. Various methods have been used by women in history to accentuate breasts. For example, corsets that enhanced cleavage were introduced in the mid-16th century.[45] By the late 18th century cleavage-enhancing corsets grew more dramatic in pushing the breasts upwards.[46] The tight lacing of corsets worn in the 19th and early 20th centuries emphasized both cleavage and the size of the bust and hips. Ball or evening gowns especially were designed to display and emphasize the décolletage.[15][16]

When corsets became unfashionable, brassieres and padding helped to project, display and emphasize the breasts. Several brassiere manufacturers, among them Wonderbra and Victoria's Secret, produce push-up and other types of bras that enhance cleavage. A push-up bra creates the appearance of increased cleavage. Use angled cups containing padding that pushes the breasts inwards and upwards, towards the centre of the chest. A push-up bra is usually a demi-cup bra.[47] The Wonderbra was the first push-up bra made. A plunge bra allows for lower and increased cleavage. Designed with angled cups and an open and lowered centre gore.[48] Unlike push-up bras, are not generally as heavily padded.[47] Frederick's of Hollywood introduced a design called Hollywood Extreme Cleavage Bra that helped give the impression of a spherical cleavage like augmented breasts that was popularized by stars like Pamela Anderson.[49] In 1985, designer Vivienne Westwood influenced the re-emergence of the corset as a trendy way to enhance cleavage.[50]


Main article: Breast augmentation

Some flat-chested women feel self-conscious about their small breasts and want to improve their sexual attractiveness by seeking breast augmentation. One flat-chested woman interviewed said, "It's the absolute worst being flat. You feel as though everyone is staring at your chest for all the wrong reasons. No men call you sexy, and you definitely don't get any wolf whistles. It brings down your entire self-esteem."[51]

Make up[edit]

Making cleavage appear deeper and the breasts look fuller alongside the cleavage with makeup is achieved using shading effects. The middle of the cleavage is made to look deeper by using a darker makeup colour than the base colour of the skin, while the most prominent areas of the breasts (either side of the cleavage) are made to look larger or more protruding by the use of a paler colour.[52][53]

Photo retouching[edit]

In 2006, British actress Keira Knightley wore a revealing Gucci dress at the European premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest that displayed her skinny body and flat chest.[54] Her breasts were digitally enlarged on the U.S. theatrical version of the poster for both that movie and for the movie King Arthur. This practice angered Knightley, who said that it "comes from market research that clearly shows that other women refuse to look at famous actresses and stars with small breasts." Later in 2006, Knightley claimed she is "not allowed to be on a magazine cover in the US without at least a C cup because it 'turns people off'."[55]


I interviewed a young anthropologist working with women in Mali, a country in Africa where women go around with bare breasts. They're always feeding their babies. And when she told them that in our culture men are fascinated with breasts there was an instant of shock. The women burst out laughing. They laughed so hard, they fell on the floor. They said, "You mean, men act like babies?"

Carolyn Latteier, Breasts, the women's perspective on an American obsession[56]

British zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris theorizes that cleavage is a sexual signal that imitates the image of the cleft between the buttocks,[57] which according to Morris in The Naked Ape is also unique to humans, other primates as a rule having much flatter buttocks.

Evolutionary psychologists theorize that humans' permanently enlarged breasts, in contrast to other primates' breasts, which only enlarge during ovulation, allowed females to "solicit male attention and investment even when they are not really fertile",[58] though Morris notes that in recent years there has been a trend toward reversing breast augmentations.[59][60] According to social historian David Kunzle, waist confinement and décolletage are the primary sexualization devices of Western costume.[61] Also, in South Africa, Wonderbra sponsors a National Cleavage Day during which women are encouraged to display their cleavage.[62] Art historian James Laver argued that the changing standards of revealing the cleavage is more prominent in the evening dress than the day dress of women in the Western world.[63]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Kinsey, Alfred C. et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Saunders, 1948.
  2. ^ Salmansohn, Karen (October 29, 2007). The Power of Cleavage "The Power of Cleavage". The Huffington Post. 
  3. ^ West's federal supplement (First Series), p. 994, West Publishing Co, 1990
  4. ^ Oliver, Rob (August 29, 2007). "I'll boost your boobs or go bust!". Retrieved 13 April 2013. 
  5. ^ The Free Dictionary
  6. ^ Barnhart, edited by Robert K. (1994). Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology (1st ed. ed.). New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-270084-1. 
  7. ^ Rudofsky, Bernard (1984). The Unfashionable Human Body (Repr. d. Ausg. ed.). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co. ISBN 978-0-442-27636-2. 
  8. ^ décolletage, Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  9. ^ a b Dunlap, Elizabeth. "The glossary: can't pronounce the ingredient, the makeup artist's name, or even the product? Read our guide!", Marie Claire, 2007-10-01
  10. ^ a b Lott, Tim. "A boob too far", The Guardian, 2006-08-06
  11. ^ Imogen Fox, The side cleavage: a new trend is born", The Guardian, 29 May 2012
  12. ^ Staff writer, "Trend Watch: The Side Cleavage", US Weekly, June 27, 2011
  13. ^ Armand Limnander, "The Talk", New York Times, April 13, 2008
  14. ^ a b Dr. Ava Cadell, "Why Men Are Fascinated with Big Breasts", Loveology University
  15. ^ a b Gernsheim, Alison. Victorian and Edwardian Fashion. A Photographic Survey. pp. 25-26, 43, 53, 63, Dover Publications, Mineola, N.Y., 1981 (Reprint of 1963 edition). ISBN 0-486-24205-6
  16. ^ a b Desmond Morris. The Naked Woman. A Study of the Female Body, p. 156. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004. ISBN 0-312-33853-8.
  17. ^ C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington (1981). The History of Underclothes. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 978-0-486-27124-8. 
  18. ^ Monique Canellas-Zimmer, Histoires de mode, Les Dossiers d'Aquitaine - 2005, ISBN 9782846221191.
  19. ^ Cunnington, C. Willett and Cunnington, Phillis E. The History of Underclothes. London: Faber & Faber, 1981. ISBN 978-0-486-27124-8
  20. ^ "French Caricature". University of Virginia Health System. Retrieved 2010-01-13. 
  21. ^ a b Gent, Lucy and Llewellyn, Nigel (eds.) Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture c. 1540–1660. London: Reaktion Books, 1990
  22. ^ S. Devadas Pillai. Indian sociology through Ghurye, a dictionary, p. 68, Popular Prakashan, 1997, ISBN 81-7154-807-5.
  23. ^ a b "Historian Reveals Janet Jackson's 'Accidental' Exposing of Her Breast was the Height of Fashion in the 1600s". University of Warwick. 5 May 2004. Archived from the original on 3 August 2004. 
  24. ^ Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, p. 147. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1989. ISBN 0-394-55948-7
  25. ^ Gernsheim, p. 43
  26. ^ Richard Ormand and Elaine Kilmurray, Sargent: The Early Portraits, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 114, ISBN 0-300-07245-7
  27. ^ Fairbrother, Trevor (2001). John Singer Sargent: The Sensualist. p. 139, Note 4. ISBN 0-300-08744-6. 
  28. ^ "Sargent's Portraits", an article including a mention of the scandal caused by the portrayal of cleavage in John Singer Sargent's "Portrait of Madame X".
  29. ^ Gernsheim, p. 94
  30. ^ Johnson, Kim K. P.; Torntore, Susan J. and Eicher, Joanne Bubolz. Fashion foundations, p. 716, Berg Publishers, 2003, ISBN 1-85973-619-X
  31. ^ Doherty, Thomas (2007). Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-14358-3. 
  32. ^ Allan Mazur, "U.S. trends in feminine beauty and overadaptation", Journal of Sex Research, pp. 281-303, Volume 22, Issue 3, 1986, The Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, Pennsylvania, USA. DOI: 10.1080/00224498609551309
  33. ^ Patricia Baker, Fashions of a Decade, page 51, Infobase Publishing, 2006, ISBN 9781438118918
  34. ^ Wayne Koestenbaum, Cleavage: essays on sex, stars, and aesthetics, page 125, Ballantine Books, 2000, ISBN 9780345434609
  35. ^ "Sixties City – Bringing on back the good times". Retrieved 2010-01-14. 
  36. ^ NBC News. "Woman told she was too Hot to Fly"
  37. ^ Bell, S., & Austin, I. "Student’s challenge of dress code not over yet: Too much cleavage: 15-year-old allowed back after sent home in revealing top". National Post, page A4, June 1, 1999
  38. ^ Austin, I. "Cleavage gets girls busted by high-school principal", page A2, Vancouver Province, May 31, 1999
  39. ^ Cleavage in a Tank Top: Bodily Prohibition and the Discourses of School Dress Codes, Shauna Pomerantz, Brock University, The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 53, No. 4, Winter 2007, 373-386
  40. ^ a b "Merkel 'Surprised' by Attention to Low-cut Dress". Spiegel Online. 15 April 2008. 
  41. ^ "Angela Merkel Raises Eyebrows with Cleavage Display". Deutsche Welle. 15 April 2008. 
  42. ^ "Plunging Neckline: Merkel 'Surprised' by Attention to Low-Cut Dress". Spiegel Online. April 15, 2008. Retrieved 11 April 2013. 
  43. ^ Moore, Tristana (Aug 17, 2009). "Busting Out: German Pol Plays the Cleavage Card". Time. Retrieved 11 April 2013. 
  44. ^ secondary sex characteristics
  45. ^ Condra, Jill. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History, p. 152, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008, ISBN 0-313-33664-4
  46. ^ Spooner, Catherine. Fashioning Gothic Bodies, p. 28, Manchester University Press, 2004, ISBN 0-7190-6401-5
  47. ^ a b "Bra Glossery". Bare Necessities. Retrieved 13 November 2011. 
  48. ^ "Bra Photo Glossary... and "Bra Mysteries" Revealed!". Retrieved 14 November 2011. 
  49. ^ Jene Luciani, The Bra Book, pp=103, 140, BenBella Books Inc., 2013, ISBN 9781935251927
  50. ^ Domna C. Stanton, Discourses of Sexuality: From Aristotle to AIDS, page 40, University of Michigan Press, 1992, ISBN 9780472065134
  51. ^ Brett, Samantha (February 17, 2012). "The Great Cleavage Conundrum: should men look if it's on display?". Northern Argus. Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  52. ^ Art and Illusion: A Guide to Crossdressing Third Edition, Vol. 2 - Fashion & Style", JoAnn Roberts, Creative Design Services, 1994, ISBN 1-880715-08-2
  53. ^ "Making Faces", Kevyn Aucoin, Prion Books Limited, 1997, ISBN 1-85375-355-6
  54. ^ "Keira Knightley is furious about her "bigger breast"". 2006-07-14. 
  55. ^ "Enlarging Keira Knightley’s Breasts". July 18, 2006. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
  56. ^ "Breast taboo in North American society". Retrieved 2009-5-6.
  57. ^ Morris (1977)
  58. ^ Crawford, Charles B. and Krebs, Dennis (eds.) "How Mate Choice Shaped Human Nature", Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology: Ideas, Issues, and Applications, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (1998)
  59. ^ Morris (1997) pp. 236,240
  60. ^ Morris (2004), pp. 156-159
  61. ^ Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion, page 122, Routledge, 1993, ISBN 0-203-40942-6
  62. ^ "National Cleavage Day" on
  63. ^ Carter, Michael Fashion classics from Carlyle to Barthes, page 732, Berg Publishers, 2003, ISBN 1-85973-606-8


External links[edit]