Cleavage (breasts)

Cleavage is the exposed area between a woman's breasts lying over the sternum, and refers only to what is visible with clothing (or dense, nontransparent body art) that includes a low-cut neckline.[1] In some cultures, display of cleavage is considered aesthetic or erotic, and may be associated with garments with low necklines that expose or highlight cleavage, such as ball gowns, evening gowns, lingerie, and swimwear. In these cultures women have, throughout history, sought to enhance their physical attractiveness and femininity, within the context of changing fashions and cultural-specific norms of modesty of the time and place. The methods practised in appropriate contexts have included the accentuation and partial display of breasts, including cleavage. In some cultures any display of cleavage may be culturally taboo (e.g. juyub in Islam), illegal or otherwise socially disapproved of.



The anatomical term for the area that constitutes a cleavage is intermammary cleft, intermammary sulcus or sulcus intermammarius.

Décolletage is the upper part of a woman's torso, between her waist and neck, comprising her neck, shoulders, back and chest, that is exposed by the neckline of her clothing. However, the term is most commonly applied to a neckline that reveals or emphasizes cleavage.[2]

When the side of the breasts are uncovered, it is known as "side cleavage" (a dubious construction, since cleavage is not involved since the intermammary cleft is not what is shown), "sidewinders" or "sideboob".[3][4] In early 2010s side cleavage was identified as a fashion trend. Gabriele Hackworthy, fashion director at Harper's Bazaar, said, "The look is unlikely to fade fast, with Yves Saint Laurent and Roberto Cavalli both pushing the silhouette next season."[5][6]

When the lower part of the breasts is uncovered, it is called "underboob".[7][8]


Western culture

Many people in Western culture, both male and female, consider breasts an important female secondary sex characteristic[9] and an important aspect of femininity. Décolletage that exposes cleavage is used by many women to enhance their physical and sexual attractiveness and to improve their sense of femininity. Display of cleavage with a low neckline is often regarded as a form of feminine flirting or seduction, as much as for its aesthetic or erotic effect. Most men derive erotic pleasure from seeing a woman's cleavage,[10] and some people derive pleasure in their female partner exposing cleavage. When cleavage is enhanced with a push-up bra or exposed by a low neckline it can draw attention.[11] During adolescence, some girls become fixated on breast shape and cleavage.[12] The use of tight clothing and the display of cleavage have been attributed as causes of an increase in breast fetishism, and atypical paraphilia.[13]

In Western and some other societies, there are differences of opinion as to how much cleavage exposure is acceptable in public.[14] In contemporary Western society, the extent to which a woman may expose her breasts depends on social and cultural context. Displaying cleavage or any part of female breast may be considered inappropriate or even prohibited by dress codes in some settings, such as workplaces, churches, and schools, while in some spaces showing as much cleavage as possible can be permissible or even encouraged. The exposure of nipples or areolae is almost always considered immodest and in some instances is viewed as lewd or indecent behavior.[15] Art historian James Laver argued that the changing standards of revealing cleavage is more prominent in evening wear than in day wear in the Western world.[16]

Modesty considerations

There is historical evidence that some cultures strongly discouraged cleavage or any hint of a bosom.[17] Early English Puritans used a tight bodice to flatten breasts completely, while 17th century Spaniards put lead plates across the chests of young girls to prevent their bosoms from developing.[17]

In the Quran, the holy book of Islam, it is stated, "Let them draw their Khimar (shawl/head veil) over their juyub (breast-line/cleavage)".[18] The ayat refers to the women's clothes worn, parted in the front to expose the breasts, at the time when it was cited.[19][20][21][22] It was later interpreted as total covering of a woman's body.[20][23][24] In early 21st century Muslim world there are differences in legal implementation. In Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, women are required to cover their body and face completely,[25] Iranian law requires a chador (over-cloak) or a hijab (head scarf).[26] In Egypt, the exposure of cleavage in the media is considered to be nudity.[27]


The cleavage area between the breasts is perhaps the epicentre and stimulation of interest. Breast and buttock cleavages, sharing a similarity between their appearances, are considered sexual in some cultures.[28] British zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris theorizes that cleavage is a sexual signal that imitates the image of the cleft between the buttocks.[29] Swelling of the anterior is a sign of mating-readiness in ape species. Among humans the female genitalia is regressed and the upright posture reduces visibility of the buttocks, but the breasts are significantly enlarged. Theorists hypothesize that with these evolutionary changes, the measure of mating-readiness and attractiveness in females has shifted from swagging buttocks to the pendulous shape of breasts and cleavage.[30]

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",[31] though Morris notes that in recent years there has been a trend toward reversing breast augmentations.[32][33] According to social historian David Kunzle, waist confinement and décolletage are the primary sexualization devices of Western costume.[34] By the turn of the 21st century, some of the attention given to cleavage and breasts started to shift to buttocks, especially in the media.[35]

Western history


In 2600 BCE, princess Nofret of the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt was depicted in a V-neck gown with a plunging neckline that exposed ample cleavage. In 1600 BCE, Snake Goddess figurines were sculpted in Minos with open dress-fronts, revealing entire breasts.[36] Ancient Greek goddess Hera wore an early version of a push-up bra, described in the Iliad as festooned with "brooches of gold" and "a hundred tassels", to increase her cleavage to divert Zeus from the Trojan War.[37]

Middle Ages

Frans Hals. Gypsy Girl. 1628–30. Oil on wood, 58 x 52 cm. Musée du Louvre
François Boucher. Young Woman with Flowers in Her Hair. c. 1734. Oil on canvas, 56.8 × 46 cm. Museum of Fine Arts

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 uncontroversial 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.[38][39]

In the 14th century, necklines were lowered, clothes were tightened and breasts were once again flaunted. 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.[40] 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.

Early modern period

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.[41][42][43] 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.[44] 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.[45] After the French Revolution décolletage become larger in the front and less in the back.[46]

During the 16th century, women's fashions with exposed breasts were common in society, from queens to common prostitutes, and emulated by all classes. 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.[45][47] During the fashions of the period 1795–1820, many women wore dresses that bared necks, bosoms and shoulders. Anne of Austria was known for wearing, along with female members of her court, very tight bodice and corsets that forced breasts together to make deeper cleavages, very low necklines that exposed breasts visible almost in entirety above the areola and pendants lying on the cleavage to highlight it.[36]

Modern period

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?"[48] Nearly a century later, also in France, a man from the provinces who attended a Court ball at the Tuileries 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!"[49]

In 1884 Portrait of Madame X, a portrait painting by John Singer Sargent of American-born Paris socialite, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, was criticized[50] 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.[51][52] In 1908, a single pad made of rubber or a "bust form" was advertised that was to be worn inside the front of the bodice to make cleavage virtually undetectable.[53]

Clergymen all over the world became shocked when dresses to be worn with modest round or V-shaped necklines became fashionable around 1913. In the German Empire, for example, all Roman Catholic bishops joined in issuing a pastoral letter attacking the new fashions.[54] 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.[55]

20th century

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."[56] 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 cloven 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.[57]

From the 1960s onward, however, changes in fashions were towards increasing displays of cleavage in films and television, with Jane Russell and Elizabeth Taylor being the biggest stars who led the fashion,[58] and in everyday life low-cut dress styles became very common, even for casual wear.[59] The Wonderbra was created in 1964 by Louise Poirier for Canadelle, a Canadian lingerie company. It had 54 design elements that lift and support the bustline while creating a deep plunge and push-together effect.

The ideal of breasts and cleavage has also evolved in the later half of the 20th century, with shapes enhanced by use of a variety of methods and techniques. In the 1950s the preferred shape was pointy, echoing the sci-fi look of the times; in the 1960s it was elegantly sloped in alignment with Hippie chic of the times; and from the 1990s a buffed, pumped and engorged look has become the preference.[60]

21st century

21st century women's fashions, especially at formal occasions, has increasingly included low-cut dress designs which expose cleavage. Such dress designs have been most noticeable at various awards presentations, such as those seen at the 2016 Academy Awards.[61][62] However, such low-cut dresses still attract comment, though less controversy. It was also noticeable in the 2013 film American Hustle, as well as in films which expose cleavage in a low-cut bra or swimsuit.

Display of cleavage can still be controversial. 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 airplane because the crew did not consider the amount of cleavage displayed acceptable.[63] 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."[64][65][66] German Chancellor Angela Merkel created controversy when she wore a low-cut evening gown to the opening of the Oslo Opera House in 2008;[67][68] 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.[67][69] 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" to draw attention to "serious election issues." The posters had a positive impact.[70]

Cleavage enhancement

Various methods have been used by women in history to enhance their physical attractiveness and femininity including the accentuation and display of breasts within the context of fashions and norms of modesty of the time and place.


Corset c. 1808
"Breast Supporter" c. 1893
Underwire demi bra c. 2007

Corsets that enhanced cleavage were introduced in the mid-16th century.[71] By the late 18th century, cleavage-enhancing corsets grew more dramatic in pushing the breasts upward.[72] The tight lacing of corsets worn in the 19th and early 20th centuries emphasized both cleavage and the size of the bust and hips. Especially evening or ball gowns were designed to display and emphasize the décolletage.[38][39]

When corsets became unfashionable, brassieres and padding helped to project, display and emphasize the breasts. In 1893, New Yorker Marie Tucek was granted a patent for a "breast supporter," described as a modification of the corset, and was very similar to a modern push-up bra designed to support the breasts. It consisted of a plate made of metal, cardboard or other stiff material shaped to fit against the torso under the breasts, following the contour of the breasts. It was covered with silk, canvas or other cloth, which extended above the plate to form a pocket for each breast. The plate curved around the torso and ended near the armpits.[73][74]

Development of the underwire bra started in the 1930s,[75] though it did not gain widespread popularity until the 1950s, when the end of World War II freed metal for domestic use.[76][77] Aviator and filmmaker Howard Hughes designed a prototype for an aerodynamic underwire bra for Jane Russell when filming The Outlaw in 1941. According to Hughes, the resultant amount was "the length of the actual cleavage is five and one-quarter inches."[37] Several brassiere manufacturers, among them Wonderbra and Victoria's Secret, produce push-up and other types of bras that enhance cleavage. 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.[78]


Many women, such as beauty pageant participants and transgender people, create cleavage by using tape underneath and across their breast, bending forward, tightly pulling them together and up.[79][80][81] Types of tape used include surgical micropore tape and athletic tape. Some also use a strip of moleskin under the breasts with tape at the ends to hold it in place. Use of the wrong techniques or tape with too strong an adhesive can cause injuries such as rashes, blisters and skin being torn off.[80][81]


Bigger breasts are easier to push together to accent the hollow between them.[11] Some flat-chested women feel self-conscious about their small breasts and want to improve their sexual attractiveness by seeking breast augmentation.[82] Plastic surgeon Gerard H. Pitman says, "you can't have cleavage with an A cup. You have to be at least a B or a C."[37] A similar statement was made for non-surgical cleavage enhancement as well (i.e. lingerie manufacturers Frederick's of Hollywood promises "high-rise cleavage to small busts" and Curvees in Etam claims to give girls with a B cup an "exciting C cup cleavage").[83]

Breast surgery for emplacing breast implants can be done for three purposes:

  1. primary reconstruction to replace breast tissues damaged by trauma (blunt, penetrating, blast), disease (breast cancer) and failed anatomic development (tuberous breast deformity).
  2. revision and reconstruction to revise (correct) the outcome of a previous breast reconstruction surgery.
  3. primary augmentation to aesthetically augment the size, form and feel of the breasts.

For breast reconstruction and for the augmentation and enhancement of the aesthetics — size, shape, and texture — of a woman's breasts, there are two types of breast implant devices in practice: saline implants filled with sterile saline solution and silicone implants filled with viscous silicone gel.

If a surgeon attempts to create or increase cleavage by loosening the medial borders of the breasts, it could result in symmastia, a confluence of the breast tissue of both breasts across the midline anterior to the sternum, creating a lack of defined cleavage.[84] Procedures are generally followed during breast reconstruction to preserve a natural cleavage of breasts.[85]


Regular exercise of the muscles and fibres of the pectoral complex, which lies just under the fatty tissues of the breast, helps prevent droopiness and can create the illusion of larger and firmer breasts and an enhanced cleavage.[86][87][88] Weight training, use of exercise machines, push ups and chest presses are considered helpful, as well as a number of other exercises, including rowing and basketball.[86] In some forms of exercise, breasts unsupported by a sports bra are exposed to greater risk of droopiness.[89][90]

Make up

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.[91][92]

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