MPB is proud to be the world's most popular men's sewing blog!



Sep 19, 2012

The Shelf Bust or "Attack of the 50-Foot Bosom"



Blame it on nuclear fallout, or postwar exuberance, or plain-and-simple bad taste.  For some reason, in the mid 1950's, the fashion industry came out with the shelf bust.  It was a short-lived look, but for a while women went for it.



Let's define terms.  In researching today's post, my staff discovered some confusion about what a shelf bust really is.  This is primarily because at present, the term carries cachet.  So like "Mad Men" being applied on Etsy to every dress pattern from 1950 to 1970, or "rockabilly" to any flouncy skirt you can fit a crinoline under, the term "shelf bust" is being applied to nearly any vintage dress (or dress pattern) that accentuates the bust, be it with gathers, a wide corset-like belt (or midriff), lace flounces, etc.

My understanding is that a true shelf bust is this. 



A "shelf" is incorporated in the design that enhances the bust line and hoists it up like a drawbridge.  It's not merely ornamental, it's structural.  No shelf, no shelf bust.  (I actually don't believe that top pic of Jayne Mansfield is a true shelf bust but it definitely evokes the 50-foot bosom.)

Other versions of the shelf.  You get the idea.





The following look, while promising to turn any Fifties sub-teen into Annette Funicello, is not, in my opinion, a true shelf bust, though often labeled as such.  Many variations of the gathered bust can be found, some with a midriff that widens in the back, and some with a midriff that narrows.











Shelf or no shelf, in the 1950's, the old adage "if you've got it flaunt it" seems to have been expanded to  "...and if you don't, stuff it with lace, tulle, taffeta, or anything else you can find in your fabric stash."



 





And then there's this look, which seems to involve two bodices: one that fits the actual bust, and one slightly larger and lower that gets stuffed, I mean embellished.





 

As always, there are variations.







Readers, the inevitable questions:

Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Shelf Bust Fan Club?

Do you consider this a look best suited for the full-figured (since it enhances) or the more flat-chested (since it exaggerates)?

The shelf bust: tacky, glamorous, or a little bit of both?

Jump in!

Renaissance shelf bust?


57 comments:

  1. I love McCall's 3869. I sold my copy and now regret it, even though I'll probably never need a wedding gown.

    I don't mind the look, although I like the true shelf better than the enhanced-with-ruffles look. I don't "have it", though, so I need all the help I can get in any era. I think it's probably a bad idea on women who are already buxom, though.

    Don't get me started on "Mad Men". I bought a "Mad Men" pattern a while back . . . from 1937. Sheesh.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think I've got one of those in my patterns-to-be-sold boxes... Email me and I'll try and locate it. Might even have your size!

      Delete
    2. I can't seem to email you through your website; can you email me through my Blogger profile?

      I'm a size 12-ish (pattern size 12, I mean), but I can resize stuff.

      Delete
  2. I enjoy a good shelf bust, light on the tulle and flowers though. I might as well work with what I've got!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Looks almost demure on LaLiz. Some of the others I can see working in a Las Vegas show! As someone on the northern side of 50, I appreciate the 'lift' one gets from the style, certainly more flattering for the girls than the rigid, half cantaloupe contraptions that pass for brassieres these days! PS would die to get my hands on McCall's 3493!

    ReplyDelete
  4. As a young girl, I was mesmerized by that gorgeous photo of Liz Taylor. Now, as a very full busted woman I see how practical it is from an engineering stand point. I don't think it's tacky. I think it's gorgeous. I would wear it in a heartbeat.
    The other ruffly, fluffy, bust enhancing non-shelf varieties I could leave on the rack.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I love a good shelf bust and am more than happy to wear one, but the proportions on that spotty blue one are strange... like the dangles are dragging the whole thing down.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Totally, totally withyou! As a big busted woman it is an asset to design flattering clothes. There........is........a threshhold where clevage is just vulgar, but well fitted defined silohouette (sp) clothes is the point. The flossies on the bust are to provide faux busom. Trying to hid a spectacular bust is like trying to hide intelligence. Never works.

      Delete
  6. Ohhh I love a good shelf bust dress! I'm dying to make one, but I'm a G cup and a little afraid it will be too over the top. Like that has ever stopped me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As someone who is a G cup in UK sizes (and various larger cup sizes in US sizes), I think you should go for it. If I had the time, the right pattern and a reason to make one, I'd be all over it. The other part about this style is that it is actually quite slimming when fitted properly, since it emphasizes the difference between bust and waist. IMHO, it's only the extra fluff added to the design that makes this style over the top.

      Delete
  7. Done right, it's almost impossibly glamorous. Done wrong, it's Diana Dors or worse. Unfortunately, there's just not much in between.

    And the style is more than just a '50s/retro phenomenon - it's not quite classic in terms of its comparatively relaxed architecture, but I think this, worn recently by the Duchess of Cambridge, comes awfully close.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Got my own shelf. No thank you on the look for me.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I've definitely pinned at least one shelf dress to my pinterest board. I think when done a la Liz Taylor it's classy and elegant. The last several images have way too much confetti for me.

    It seems to me that, in fashion, as a trend catches on and spreads, it becomes gaudier and more emphatic the longer it lingers.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I love the shelf bust look, just not on me. At five foot two with a 'full bust', I'd feel as if I'd keel over any moment.

    My seventeen year old daughter, on the other hand, has the height and the classic hour-glass figure. I'll be lobbying hard for her to let me make her debs(prom)dress in that style. It would than likely be based on this one:

    http://voguepatterns.mccall.com/v8812-products-22894.php?page_id=850

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have to agree with the general consensus that it depends on how the dress is made. I think if it uses the same fabric for the shelf and the bust coverings, and the structure is used to emphasize the bust that is already there it can look elegant and glamorous (aka the Liz look). When it looks like you are trying to rob a craft store... not so much.

    I think the gathered bust style is probably safer and more consistently elegant, though.

    ReplyDelete
  12. A shelf bust that actually fits, on a well-endowed lady with a slender frame - is an excellent look, IMO. But it's very easy to do it incredibly badly.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'm full-busted and this looks super supportive. I've never worn it, so I have no idea, really, but I have trouble with bodices that don't really account for the need for structure.

    I dislike the fouffy examples, but that's because I'm of my time. No doubt it looked appealing mid-century. (Like skinny jeans look appealing now. Though not to me.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed that it looks super supportive. The key, I think, is that the good dresses from that era would have had a foundation sewn into the dress, which would have given it the structure the style calls for. Far too few formal dresses/dress patterns these days have that feature. Clearly a woman with a larger bust would need that, given the slender width of the straps, or she'd have grooves in her shoulders by the end of the evening.

      Delete
  14. I WISH WOMEN WOULD GO BACK TO IT! UGH I LOVE IT SO MUCH!

    ReplyDelete
  15. A little bit of both... it sure does put a woman's goods on display. :) A little too much for my taste

    ReplyDelete
  16. I think a shelf bust can look flattering. I absolutely love the McCalls 3493 and the purple Annette Funicello :D

    Going in search of pattern M3493 wish me luck I need for a 40 bust.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I love the look of the shelf bust, and for the most part I think it looks glamourous. Like everything else, it depends on how it's done.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Just to add: What I'm talking about is the true shelf bust--the first type.

    The gathered/shirred style is not a true shelf bust, as you say. IMHO the problem with the shirred/gathered style is it is better suited to those that are less well endowed. It has a tendency to make someone with a large bust look top-heavy and large, rather than just enhancing the bust.

    As for the frilly styles, those are again suited to the flat, or small of chest. The frills are means to make very little look like more. Someone who is already busty doesn't suit those styles.

    ReplyDelete
  19. The shelf bust is not as modern as it seems. In fact it is a pre-bra way to keep one's breasts from sagging too much when you get older. Examples can be seen for instance in middle-European traditional clothing like the Dirndl.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I think it's all about moderation. As a large-busted woman myself, I don't think I'd ever reach for this style, since I really don't want it to be All About The Boobs, but it could be nice on a smaller busted woman than me, or if you don't mind everyone staring a foot below your face.

    ReplyDelete
  21. As a woman of "modest" bust that have pointed toward the floor since I first grew a pair, the shelf is the way to go - for me. On my mother - she of the perky and prominent busoms at 60+ would look like a circus freak or a topheavy building.

    The beauty of the shelf is that it lifts and separates. The breasts from the waist. ;-) And when constructed properly alleviates the need for mega-foundation garments.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I love a shelf bust, but more understated ones, not the fluffy ruffly stuffed ones. But then that's probably just me responding to my own body type -- I wear a 28J bra size, so a well-cut shelf bust (with a full skirt and petticoats to balance out my bottom half) can show off my figure well, but adding lots of layers or ruffles to the bust would just make it ridiculous.

    It's a style that pops up throughout history, too, if you go looking for it, not just in the 1950s. I would love for it to return as a major trend now (better than the peplum by far, IMO), but given our modern mass produced clothing, I think most interpretations of it would fall far short of the mark. Leave it for red carpet and home sewers who aren't afraid to spend a little extra time getting the fit exactly right.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I love the structured version that Liz is wearing. I think that's fabulous for an ample bust (like me). I think I could wear the Annette Funiccello purple dress but it would depend on the dress and how much the folds added.

    But anything with additional frills and netting? Lovely on a small bust, I don't need that kind of illusion.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I really love the look of the proper shelf bust style - the first several images of Liz and after. I think my frame could carry it off, too, but I don't know if I'd actually be comfortable drawing that kind of attention to my chest.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I love the look of the shelf-bust in the first few examples. The ones full of ruffles are too over the top for me. If I was going to try to wear it, though, it would have to fit just exactly right. Few things would look worse than calling extra attention to that area by falling out of the top of the shelf.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I love it and have made many a frock based along those lines. I think what is appealling to this look for women is not the 'look at me' boobs but the 'oh my waist looks so tiny' bit. No accounting for female logic!

    ReplyDelete
  27. I love shelf busts, no question! I'm definitely of the "if you've got it, flaunt it" club, and if you don't, well that's why God gave us push up bras.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Liz isn't really wearing a shelf-bust, she's wearing horizontal gathers over her bust. You notice that it contributes very little extra volume to that which is already fairly voluminous?

    As someone with volume, shelf-busts are not for me. I'd look ridiculous. I think they're best for the pre-teen set, or the junior-high dance. It's a sweet look, certainly.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Love them on the right person. I would need a couple of shelves to hoist me up. You could modernize it, but love the ones you have shown.

    ReplyDelete
  30. I confess to having a prom dress in 1984 with what I guess could be considered a "shelf bust". It was along the lines of some of the last photos with a few layers of upward facing ruffles. At that point in my life I was decidedly "less than" endowed and used the ruffles as a disguise. It was also a strap-less gown and I needed to practically duct tape that sucker in place!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Saw a strapless with a single upward facing panel in a 1983 Vogue, and never forgot how striking it looked.

      Delete
  31. With weight gain and loss, my bra cup has been both half full and half empty over the course of the last decade. Optimistic, pessimistic or in between, they all look good on a shelf.

    ReplyDelete
  32. Hahahahaha! When I read "shelf bust" I envisioned the shelf on my bust that collects crumbs and dribbles when I eat! Not chic! Some of the above examples are lovely and elegant, but the ones with upturned ruffles and tulle look like a bouquet that has boobs in the center.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Me too! If the toothpaste drips, thats where it ends up. When my boy climbs up me (rather like a circus act) its knees, hips, shelf bust then shoulders for the finale. Thank goodness for strong underwear!

      Delete
  33. When I first saw "shelf bust" I figured you were discussing "gramma boobs", the uniboob that comes from the matronly figure or the modern garment: sports bra.

    Listen, I think anything Liz Taylor put on was amazing. She was so tiny yet curvy, I would give a lot to have her amazing coloring (violet eyes!!!!) and striking looks, but alas not. I have what I have and I am what I am, with no shelf bust but instead gramma boobs!

    ReplyDelete
  34. Since you didn't ask - I think Cathy would rock the shelf bust. On the more buxom I personally think it makes one look like Queen Mary (wife of George V, not the ship). But Cathy is fortunate not to have that issue, so she should give it a try.

    ps
    Cache - secret stash (weapons, fabric).
    Cachet - kudos.
    Cash - buckaroos.
    Personally I have a cache (not the weapons) and sometimes cash but not cachet.

    ReplyDelete
  35. If you're really a flatty patty (like me) a shelf bust is going to look So. Completely. Ridiculous. If you've got a very little bust, putting construction layers on it just screams 'I'm not very confident with my boobs!'. Ugh.

    Also, that white dress? It looks like the dressmaker forgot to include the bust pieces so just stuck a flower-covered bra on it.

    ReplyDelete
  36. I prefer the cupboard bust - the deep V neck where, if you have the required cleavage, you can hide a few crumbs from dinner in case you need them later on...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I just discovered that the "crumb-catcher neckline" is a real term (in gown terminology) for those gowns that look like you have an open fan on your chest.

      Delete
    2. So thats where my parmesan topping went...

      Delete
  37. The right design and figure are important but if you don't have the right "attitude and presence" you will look trashy and falling apart instead of elegant and totally put together. As far as I am concerned that dress requires "elegance" no matter what your reason is for wearing it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yup! they can be gorgeous but you must have perfect posture and poise to carry it off. Put a sloucher in one of these dresses and she'll look less than dignified

      Delete
  38. I LOVE the shelf bust! Aside from the last four way-too-ruffley examples, I love all of the photos that you've posted. Everything else I have to say about them has already been said. Two thumbs up, or should I say two breasts up?

    ReplyDelete
  39. I really love this look, actually. Maybe because my bust needs all the help it can get. Gertie did one a year or two back and I've been wanting to do the same ever since... :D

    As for the two-layer-bodice, I find it an interesting novelty look but not something you'd want to wear more than once or twice, so I doubt I'd actually make one. :)

    ReplyDelete
  40. Ooh, I love the Elizabeth Taylor look-- it's so feminine and gorgeous! But I'm always looking for a boost, so to speak... ;)

    ReplyDelete
  41. It was definitely for the more endowed person. The rest of us needed to stuff the shelf or look ridiculous.

    ReplyDelete
  42. This style reminds me of Elizabeth Bennet in the Pride and Prejudice mini series (the one with Jennifer Ehle and not the rubbish version with Keira Knightly)
    http://www.more.com/sites/default/files/photo/image/03/51/78/photo/35178/Elizabeth_Bennet.jpg
    wouldn't you agree?
    don't think I'd wear it myself as I don't like to add to my already decent sized breasts, but do enjoy other people wearing it.

    ReplyDelete
  43. The dress Liz is wearing may have been designed by Bill Travilla who designed many of Marilyn's gowns. He often used a self-fabric strap which went under the bust and continued to form the shoulder straps and criss-crossed at the back like a built-in bra. I think it a flattering look and recently considered drafting a dress pattern that employed this device.

    ReplyDelete
  44. I love a shelf bust as a chance to create an hourglass look on a flat-chested figure (and that without the kind of scary 90% foam super push-up bras on sale these days).
    I agree on narrow definition of the term (actually, I didn't think Gertie's version was a shelf-bust dress..) but I don't agree that it's tacky. It has, like any big look, to applied in good measure but I still think it can be great.
    I tried the look myself two years ago and although it isn't the most practical or most worn dress, I still love it. I blogged about it here: http://petitmainsauvage.blogspot.nl/2010/07/new-dress.html and here: http://petitmainsauvage.blogspot.nl/2010/08/new-dress-now-with-more-pictures.html

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts with Thumbnails