Cleavage (breasts)

Cleavage (breasts)
A woman's cleavage

Cleavage, anatomically known as the intramammary cleft, is the space between a woman's breasts lying over the sternum. Cleavage is exposed by a garment with a low neckline, such as ball gowns, evening gowns, swimwear, casual tops and other garments.

Most people, both male and female, regard breasts as an important aspect of femininity and many women use cleavage to enhance their physical and sexual attractiveness and to enhance their sense of femininity.[citation needed] Some people regard use 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. Some people derive erotic pleasure from seeing a woman's cleavage, some derive pleasure in their female partner exposing cleavage, and some women wear low-cut clothing for the pleasure of their partner. However, yet another group, 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.


Cleavage terms

The International Federation of Associations of Anatomists (IFAA) has adopted the terms intermammary sulcus or intermammary cleft when referring to the area of cleavage between the breasts not including the breasts. For legal purpose 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.[1]

Side cleavage

When the lateral aspects of the breasts are uncovered, it is known as side cleavage, sidewinders or sideboob.[2][3]

Bottom cleavage

Exposure of the underside of the breast, such as below an extremely short crop top, is known as neathage (a blend of underneath and cleavage), Australian cleavage (because of the reference to Australia as down-under), bottom cleavage, reverse cleavage or underboob.[2][3]


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

In European society, décolletage was often a feature of the dress of the late Middle Ages. This continued through the Victorian period. Ball or evening gowns especially featured décolletage designed to display and emphasize cleavage.[4][5]

In many European societies between the Renaissance and the 19th century, wearing low-cut dresses which 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

In 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?"[9] 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!"[10]

For ordinary wear, high collars were, however, the norm for many years.

Lingerie has long been designed to emphasize cleavage.

Cultural aspects

Décolletage, which is the form of the neckline, is an aspect of woman's fashion. As such, popular necklines change over time and for different occasions. Women's swimsuits and bikinis commonly have very low necklines which result in the tops and sides of breasts being exposed. Evening dresses often have low to extremely low necklines. Such dresses are often considered a sign of elegance and sophistication on many formal social occasions. Also, modern Western fashions favour open neck styles.

Enhancing cleavage

Many women regard breasts as an important female secondary sex characteristic,[11] and a factor in their sexual attractiveness. They identify their femininity and sense of self with their breasts. Historically women have, in appropriate situations, displayed their breasts and femininity with pride, within the limits of community and personal standards of modesty.

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.[12] By the late 18th century cleavage enhancing corsets grew more dramatic in pushing the breasts upwards.[13] 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.[14][15]

More recently, after corsets became unfashionable, brassieres and padding have served to project, display and emphasize the breasts. Several brassiere manufacturers, among them Wonderbra and Victoria's Secret, produce bras that enhance cleavage.

At times, some women seek to enhance their sexual attractiveness by remedying what they consider a deficiency in their breasts. This may be by the use of an artificial device or by surgery. Surgery may be for breast augmentation or reduction.


Low necklines usually result in the exposure of breasts or cleavage. Showing the nipples or areolae is almost always considered toplessness or partial nudity. In Western and some other societies, there are differences of opinion as to how much cleavage exposure is acceptable in public.[16] 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.

Some people became shocked when it became fashionable, around 1913, for dresses to be worn with a modest round or V-shaped neckline. In the German Empire, for example, all Roman Catholic bishops joined in issuing a pastoral letter attacking the new fashions.[17] 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.[18] From the 1960s onward, however, greater sexual permissiveness lead to increasing displays of cleavage in films, on television, and in everyday life, and low-cut dress styles became very common, even for casual wear.

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 decollete gowns were regarded to be "intentionally designed to give a bosom peep-show effect beyond even extreme decolletage".[19]

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 they did not consider the amount of cleavage displayed to be acceptable.[20]

German Chancellor Angela Merkel created controversy when she wore a low-cut dress to the opening of the Oslo Opera House on 12 April 2008.[21][22]

Cleavage theory

I interviewed a young anthropologist working with women in Mali, in 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[23]

British zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris theorizes that cleavage is a sexual signal that imitates the image of the cleft between the buttocks,[24] 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",[25] though Morris notes that in recent years there has been a trend toward reversing breast augmentations.[26][27] According to social historian David Kunzle, waist confinement and the décolletage are the primary sexualization devices of Western costume.[28] Also, in South Africa, Wonderbra sponsors a National Cleavage Day during which women are encouraged to display their cleavage.[29] 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.[30]

See also


  1. ^ West's federal supplement (First Series), p. 994, West Publishing Co, 1990.
  2. ^ a b Elizabeth Dunlap, "The glossary: can't pronounce the ingredient, the makeup artist's name, or even the product? Read our guide!", Marie Claire, 2007-10-01.
  3. ^ a b Tim Lott, "A boob too far", The Guardian, 2006-08-06.
  4. ^ Gernsheim, pp. 25-26, 43, 53, 63.
  5. ^ Desmond Morris. The Naked Woman. A Study of the Female Body, p. 156. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004. ISBN 0-312-33853-8.
  6. ^ C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, The History of Underclothes. London: Faber & Faber, 1981. ISBN 978-0-486-27124-8.
  7. ^ "French Caricature". University of Virginia Health System. Retrieved 2010-01-13. 
  8. ^ Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn, eds., Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture c. 1540–1660. London: Reaktion Books, 1990.
  9. ^ Simon Schama. Citizens. A Chronicle of the French Revolution, p. 147. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1989. ISBN 0-394-559-48-7.
  10. ^ Alison Gernsheim. Victorian and Edwardian Fashion. A Photographic Survey, p. 43. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, Inc., 1981. Reprint of 1963 edition. ISBN 0-486-24205-6.
  11. ^ secondary sex characteristics
  12. ^ Jill Condra. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History, p. 152, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008, ISBN 0313336644.
  13. ^ Catherine Spooner. Fashioning Gothic Bodies, p. 28, Manchester University Press, 2004, ISBN 0719064015.
  14. ^ Gernsheim, pp. 25-26, 43, 53, 63.
  15. ^ Desmond Morris. The Naked Woman. A Study of the Female Body, p. 156. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004. ISBN 0-312-33853-8.
  16. ^ Salmansohn, Karen. "The Power of Cleavage". The Huffington Post, October 29, 2007.
  17. ^ Gernsheim, p. 94.
  18. ^ Kim K. P. Johnson, Susan J. Torntore, and Joanne Bubolz Eicher. Fashion foundations, p. 716, Berg Publishers, 2003, ISBN 185973619X.
  19. ^ Thomas Doherty & Thomas Patrick Doherty, Hollywood's censor: Joseph I. Breen & the Production Code Administration, page 310, Columbia University Press, 2007, ISBN 0231143583
  20. ^ NBC News. Woman told she was too Hot to Fly.
  21. ^ "Merkel 'Surprised' by Attention to Low-cut Dress" Spiegel Online, 15 April 2008.
  22. ^ "Angela Merkel Raises Eyebrows with Cleavage Display". Deutsche Welle, 15 April 2008.
  23. ^ Breast taboo in North American society. Retrieved 2009-5-6.
  24. ^ Desmond Morris. Manwatching. A Field Guide to Human Behavior.. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977. ISBN 0-8109-1310-0.
  25. ^ Charles B. Crawford and Dennis Krebs (eds.). "How Mate Choice Shaped Human Nature", Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology: Ideas, Issues, and Applications, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (1998).
  26. ^ Morris. Manwatching, pp. 236, 240.
  27. ^ Morris. Naked Woman, pp. 156-159.
  28. ^ Jennifer Craik. The Face of Fashion, page 122, Routledge, 1993, ISBN 0203409426.
  29. ^ National Cleavage Day
  30. ^ Michael Carter. Fashion classics from Carlyle to Barthes, page 732, Berg Publishers, 2003, ISBN 1859736068.
  • Alison Gernsheim. Victorian and Edwardian Fashion. A Photographic Survey. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, Inc., 1981. Reprint of 1963 edition. ISBN 0-486-24205-6
  • Desmond Morris. Manwatching. A Field Guide to Human Behavior. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977. ISBN 0-8109-1310-0
  • Desmond Morris. The Naked Woman. A Study of the Female Body. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004. ISBN 0-312-33853-8

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • cleavage — [[t]kli͟ːvɪʤ[/t]] cleavages 1) N COUNT A woman s cleavage is the space between her breasts, especially the top part which you see if she is wearing a dress with a low neck. 2) N COUNT A cleavage between two people or things is a division or… …   English dictionary

  • cleavage — UK [ˈkliːvɪdʒ] / US [ˈklɪvɪdʒ] noun [countable] Word forms cleavage : singular cleavage plural cleavages 1) the space between a woman s breasts 2) formal a division between two groups of people or things …   English dictionary

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