The Female Breast and the History of Western Civilization
Throughout the ages, the female body has been revered as a work of art and beauty and as a source of life, from which all people are born. The breast is one of the most predominate features of a woman and stands out as a symbol of womanliness and livelihood. Eroticism, nourishment, abundance, hunger, feminine power, as well as feminine subservience, are different contradicting themes of the breast played out in time. Different repeating views of its importance and the way it should be displayed are used to reflect upon the views of women of the time and life in Western society in general. At times, it is near-worshipped as a sign of sexuality, or as a sign of nourishment. Other times it is secured down, sometimes a sign of the inferiority of women or, conversely, as a sign of women’s liberation and their equality to men. Whether it is intentional or subconscious, how the breast is viewed throughout history is a direct reflection of the views of the time.
Legends about the breast have appeared in a variety of cultures. Greek, Indian, and Native American myth all contain stories which involve biting a breast. For example, Hercules was said to have gotten his extra-human strength from biting the breast of Hera as an infant. This and other such stories can be symbolic of an attack on Mother Nature or the earth goddess, and of man’s ability to overcome her (Latteier 146). Women with multiple sets of breasts are a reoccurring theme in Western society, symbolizing fruitfulness. The Greek goddess Artenis of Ephesus had nearly twenty breasts on her chest. Medieval Christian stories often involve the breasts and breast milk of the Virgin Mary. Next to the blood of Jesus Christ, her milk was the most holy and most miraculous of fluids, its wonders retold in numerous poems, stories, and songs (Yalom 44). She was said to have appeared to Saint Barnard when he was praying and offered him a stream of her breast milk to drink from (46). A fourth century prostitute was said to have been spared the death penalty by baring her breasts to the judges, who were so impressed by their beauty that they acquitted her (20).
Minoan society on the island of Crete honored the breast. Women’s clothing was designed to let the breasts show through. Women were placed in high social positions and power. Their breasts stood for material wealth, political power, and sacredness. The Minoans are given credit as the first people to use a corset. They wore bodices that laced below the bust, lifting and exposing the breasts (Winston). Priestesses known as snake goddesses were notorious for large breasts and snakes that coiled around their arm, both symbols of their power, potency mixed with sustenance (Yalom 15).
Classic Greek society praised masculinity and repressed femininity. Women were encouraged to stay at home and they few little rights. Only the Hetaerae, a special upper class of women, were able to participate in social activities of men. The apodemos, a linen article worn by the Hetaerae, was considered to be the first brassiere (Silverman). It, however, usually flattened the breasts instead of accentuating them, reflecting the anti-feminine views of the time.
With the rise of Christianity, the breasts and the flesh in general were discouraged from being exposed. The stomach was considered to be more of an important center of female sexuality, with rounded bellies being more attractive (Broby-Johansen 131). This was modeled after the Virgin Mary whose round belly contained the savior (Yalom 40). It wasn’t until the fourteenth century and the Renaissance that this began to change. Explosive creativity and art occurred despite great famine and disease. As people became more frivolous, clothing became more revealing, and the neckline lowered to show cleavage (Latteire 31).
In the seventeenth century, the breasts once again became the predominate center of female attractiveness over the belly. It was fruitful like the stomach, but more sensual. It stood as a symbol of power and wealth at a time when mercantilism was on the rise in Europe (Latteire 32). The corset, which was previously used to flatten the breasts, was used to push in the stomach and push out the breasts (Winston). Louis XIV of France’s personal taste was a factor in this, as he demanded lower necklines for all the court women. He considered it a sign of respect to him and to the Deity (Latteire 33).
After the French Revolution, there was about a decade of naturalism. Romanticism rejected fashions and norms of the former aristocracy, such as the use of the powdered wig, which was banned. Independence and freedom of expression were key and an outpour of emotional awakening occurred. The breasts were popular as symbols of emotion and naturalism. Breast-feeding regained popularity. In fact, the French government demanded that women who wanted government support must nurse their babies (Yalom 113). It was regarded as a civic duty that embraced the new government and rejected the old regime. In some circles, women’s clothing was nearly transparent with the breasts showing through. Many women stopped wearing the corset and chose a more natural look (Broby-Johansen 142). In time, this Romanticism calmed down, and so did clothing and the corset returned to the scene.
In 1839, Jean Wearly patented a machine for making corsets and set up a factory in France (Winston). Until this time, corsets were a luxury for the upper classes. Now they were readily produced for a reasonable price that could be afforded by the masses. The proper display of the breasts and waist through corsets became an important part of fashion society. Corset companies began to advertise in fashion magazines. Slowly, it became acceptable to show pictures of the corsets in magazines. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes. There were sleeping corsets, leisure corsets, pregnancy corsets, nursing corsets, bathing corsets, horseback riding corsets, etc. (Yalom 168) The English preferred long corsets that extended over the hips while the French preferred shorter models (Broby-Johansen 183).
At the turn of the century, there was growing opposition to the corset. Doctors blamed the corset for constricting the ribs and compressing the organs of women. Economist Thorstien Veblen blamed the corset for the women’s dependence on their husbands, as it weaken them so that they were unfit to work (Yalom 171). In 1893, Marie Tucek patented the first modern brassiere. It was similar to the brassiere used today in that it had separate cups for each breast, shoulder straps and a hook in the back, but it was not until the 1920’s that the brassiere replaced the corset as the garment of choice (Silverman).
During World War I, French women began to favor the more flat-chested look that would later become popular after the war. The Germans, enemies of the French in the war, responded by promoting a bustier look. German bra makers advertised that the French brassieres which reduced breast size were unpatriotic and encouraged people to buy the German brassier that maximized the breasts (Broby-Johansen 197). Women’s roles in the work force increased over the course of the war. They won the right to vote in 1919 in America and there was a growing belief that women were able to do almost anything a man can do. The French flat look gained popularity in the states. Corsets were no longer used and in many cases, women also did not use the brassiere (Yalom 184). With their increasingly more equal role, the breast as a sign of femininity was bided down in some cases, as women gave themselves a more boyish look to fit their less gender-based roles in society. The legs replaced the bust as the most attractive female feature in the twenties which in turn were replaced by the back in the thirties (186).
After the chaos of World War II, people looked for familiarity and security. The breasts were a sign of security and once again became popular. The old traditional look of the hourglass figure was reintroduced (Lattiere 44). Large breasts also were a sign of prosperity in this time of advance. Brassieres were designed to give a coned, machine-like, look to the breasts that fit the growing technology of the era (Silverman).
During the rise of motion pictures, women tended to get parts that fit the stereotypes associated with their body types. Women with larger chests were viewed as sexual beings: lower class women who used their big busts to attract a mate, such as Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire. Movie stars such as Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, and Sophia Loren fit this category. Small-chested movie stars were a minority that included Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn. They were not viewed as sex symbols but as symbols of upper class sophistication, and wit (Yalom 192). While Marilyn Monroe was type cast as a golddigger and a bimbo, Katharine Hepburn played such characters as a missionary and a political activist. The breasts are viewed as symbols of sexuality, and the modern stereotype of what is sexy is not consistent with the stereotype of what is considered intelligence. The more bosom, the less brain. That’s the law of nature; that is why the poor miserable females are the way they are. (Allende 98.)
In the sixties and early seventies, America was undergoing a period of rebellion. People sought to free themselves from the mores of society, advocating civil rights, free love and naturalism. Many women gave up using the bra and in certain settings walked topless. The free breast was symbolic of the free spirits of the young women of the time (Latteier 157). Women wished to be given more complete social equality as well as celebration of the differences between men and women. It was during this time that artists such as singer Helen Reddy showed a more pro-womanhood attitude to their work. Bra-burning and other extreme measures were used to show women’s pride in themselves and the rejection of the traditional way that sexuality was a necessary tool for women to obtain power (Latteire 39).
When the hippie era calmed down, the perfection of the body became the ideal. Exercise reshaped the legs and abdomen, and the use of the wonder-bra and breast implants were used to perfect the breast (Latteire 235). In 1977, the sports bra was invented as a practical solution to the demands of the fitness craze of the time. Jogging and a healthy lifestyle were in style and women needed motion control. (Yalom 180) Large breasts came back in style in the eighties after over a decade of small breasts being the fashion. The Wall Street Journal suggested that this was related to the macho conservatism ushered during the Reagan years (181). Large breasts emphasized gender differences, going with the trend of male dominated politics.
Breasts are, and have been, an important commercial entity in Western society. Depending on the fashion of the time, women tried to find various ways to increase or decrease the size of the bust. Ointments, lotions, and different recipes were sold to women claiming to improve the size of the breasts (Yalom, 78). None of the treatments worked, as even today, there is no proven way short of surgery to change the size of the bosom.
From the binding of the breasts in male-dominated Ancient Greece, to the large breasts of the 1980’s, the way society treats the breasts reflects the customs of society at the time. Why is the breast considered such an important feature of the body? Is it because of their connection with lactation and the nurturing of infants? Or because of their sexual nature, as a symbol of femininity and womanhood? Whatever the reason, they are an important indication of the views of Western society and will continue to be so in the future.
Allende, Isabel. The Infinate Plan. Trans. Magart Sayers Peden. New York: Harper Collins, 1991
Broby-Johansen, R. Body and Clothes. New York: Reinhold Book Corporation., 1968.
Latteier, Carolyn. Breasts: The Women’s Perspective on an American Obsession. Binghamton: The Haworth Press, Inc., 1998.
Silverman, Steven. The Brassiere. http://home.nycap.rr.com/useless/support_files/author.html
Winston, Elisabeth. The History of Corsets. http://home.earthlink.net/~isibastel/corset.html
Yalom, Marilyn. A History of the Breast. New York: Alfred a. Knopf, Inc., 1997.