Saturday 25 March 2017

Katie Byrne: Vogue's declaration that cleavage is 'out' is nothing new

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Cleavage, according to fashion bible Vogue, has gone the same way of tapered trousers, ear climbers and bucket bags. That is to say, out of fashion, so last season, oh my God, did you see what she was wearing?

"Those magnificent mounds pushed together to display sexual empowerment, to seduce, to inspire lust or even just to show off - is over, or at least, taking a well-earned break," declared a Vogue writer in the last issue of the British edition.

Funnily enough, the last person I heard say 'magnificent mounds' was a vowel-swirling archaeologist presenting a Discovery Channel documentary on Ancient Egyptian burial customs, but that's not the point. The point is that the pronouncement caused a storm in a D-cup on social media, where critics argued that you can't dismiss a God-given body shape as a fashion faux pas.

Sure, you can drop the tapered trousers from last season into Oxfam, or pass them on to your country cousin who was only delighted to wear your once-loved lizard-print stilettos to her Debs. A pair of breasts, not so much.

Even so, while I ought to stand shoulder-to-bra-strap-indented-shoulder with my ample-chested sisters on this one, I think the keyboard warriors might have missed the point.

Larger breasts, in case they haven't noticed, have never been celebrated on the pages of magazines like Vogue. Occasionally the editors might buck the trend and showcase the curves of a plus-size model, like some circus oddity who can pull off the extraordinary feat of being kind of fat and beautiful all at the same time.

Meanwhile, when Vogue Australia put Kim Kardashian on its cover, they opted for a bandeau top that looked like a large censorship strip; American Vogue went for a garment that resembled a straightjacket.

Strictly speaking, the high fashion breast should be small enough to peek out of a YSL smoking jacket (no bra, no need) for a moody, Demarchelier-style shot, or adequately covered by a strategically positioned arm.

This is nothing new. The idea that smaller breasts are more sophisticated has always permeated high-brow culture. Big breasts appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Smaller breasts feature in nude studies on gallery walls. Big breasts belong to cheerleaders in straight-to-DVD slasher films. Small breasts belong to strong, sensual protagonists in subtitled French films. Big breasts are a Yee-haw! rodeo ride (I blame the Dolly Parton archetype). Smaller breasts are a discussion on the finer points of the Danish art of hygge.

And still, despite the unspoken classist implications, bigger - among some women - is thought to be better. Maybe it's because Barbie was well-endowed (incidentally, she had a breast reduction in 1998). Maybe we falsely associate larger breasts with femininity or womanhood.

Just as high-end fashion has fetishised the smaller breast, mainstream culture has commercialised the bigger breast. Body ideals come and go, of course. (Try on an authentic 1920s flapper dress or 1960s mod dress and you'll see that larger breasts weren't always the preferred shape.) From the 1990s onwards, however, thanks to the rise of the Wonderbra, breast augmentation surgery and internet pornography, the prevailing trend has been for a cleavage that bumptiously asserts itself with all the mystique of a T-shirt reading 'My eyes are up here!'.

Nowadays cleavages must defy the laws of gravity while also being capable of surviving nuclear attack. Cleavages of the 1950s showed off the natural fall of the breast. The modern equivalent looks like some form of Cyborgian body armour, or a device designed to keep you afloat in water.

It's an engineering project using an arsenal of tools (push-up bras, chicken fillets, tit tape) that hoist them up, push them together and create the illusion of a billowing basket of glazed bread rolls affixed to your chest.

We don't need Vogue to tell us that this trend has reached its expiration date. Stocks in the big reveal are plunging as low as the necklines of the women sporting it. You know it's hit saturation point when you look at an astronomical cleavage and, instead of getting hot under the collar, you wonder if the poor thing is feeling the cold.

Like most women, I found Vogue's decree a touch dictatorial, and more than a little disingenuous seeing as they have never given 'magnificent mounds' much coverage in the first place. And yet, I agree with their fashion forecast.

The bodycon dress has had its moment; skinny jeans have given way to wide-leg trousers and the push-up bra has been replaced by the bralette. The last few seasons were a sigh of relief - the fashion equivalent of taking a bra off after a long day.

When larger chests are no longer considered to be status symbols or sexual currency in a bigger-is-better society, we can perhaps start to accept that every shape and size is beautiful.

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