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May 8, 2010

Fashion and the Flat-chested Femme

Struck by a number of comments both here and on Pattern Review relating to my cousin Cathy's lack of belle poitrine -- which, admittedly, is more Margaret O'Brien than Jayne Mansfield, I decided to take a closer look at fashion's ongoing relationship to the female bosom -- specifically during the 1940s and 50s.

The Forties was a period when a woman's breasts were more likely to be covered or camouflaged than pneumatically pumped up.  If anything, styles, and especially accessories, were designed to distract the eye from this area.

Take a look:

To reference old-time comedienne Rusty Warren, these are not "knockers up!" girls.

Shoulder pads, full gathered sleeves, flounces, dramatic hats all pulled the eye away from, or simply covered, the chest.  The fashion model, representing an ideal, was decidedly flat.   Anything too curvy was the realm of the pin-up (though relatively tame by today's standards).

Most sewing patterns of the period de-accentuate the bosom.

In the sewing I've done from this period, I have never encountered a horizontal bust dart, but rather gathers and tucks to create fullness in front.

After WWII, however, women's fashion became decidedly more figure-revealing, with a much greater emphasis on full breasts and tiny waist.

There are numerous arguments to explain this "re-feminization" of the female form: a need to remind women, at a time men were returning from the war and re-entering the labor force, that a woman's role was primarily domestic and decorative?   Changing tastes?   A need to create a market for new clothes?

Fifties fashions were harder to wear without waist cinchers and bullet bras.  While many popular actresses were flat  -- Audrey Hepburn comes to mind -- the va-va-voom look, which was more aggressively sexual than the tamer Forties, took center stage.

The Fifties fashion aesthetic is still with us, and it's been up and down (no pun intended) since then: Twiggy!  Anna Nicole!

Fashion's ambivalence toward the female breast continues.  They're there, obviously, and must be accommodated, but judging by the number of sewers struggling with FBAs, they can be a challenge.  Fashion designers don't seem to be helping, or so I gather from what I read on Pattern Review.

For the less-than-full-figured, I cannot think of a better period to inspire one than the Forties.  Yes, the fashion silhouette in the Twenties and early Thirties was decidedly flat, but those periods are less accessible with regard to patterns and popular tastes, while the Forties are alive and well.

Your thoughts, readers?  Do you find yourself at home in the Forties look, or do you prefer the Fifties more exaggerated lines?

Does one strike you as more feminine -- or on some level more feminist?

Jump in!


  1. As someone who has practically no bust, there's a part of me that wants to sew 40s fashion. But I don't find it attractive. I just don't like the way it looks. So I tend to sew princess seamed things instead, which are easy to alter. :P


  2. I am flat - as in, smaller than an A cup, totally flat, no need for a bra. I love mid to late 60's Twiggy style dresses because they play up a boyish figure and do not try to emphasize my non existent bustline.
    (FWIW - I am totally happy with my body and would not change one thing about it, so this is not a complaint).

    I love the look of 1950s styles, but they do not work on my ruler dimensions (straight up and down), so I do not bother with them. And I am ok with that. If I were voluptuous I would probably avoid 60's styles and just do things from the 50s as those fashions work on curvy figures.

    I do not like the look of 40s fashion because for me, it is too conservative and boring. But on the right person they would look nice.

  3. I pick and choose by the overall look, rather than the era. In terms of body type, there are clear advantages to either. The less well-endowed amongst us almost have bodies that are much better suited to wearing a wider variety of clothes -- and are easier to fit.

    The more amply-endowed? Welcome to fitting-nightmare-city -- one in which many styles are just out of the question. Serious roundness across the chest hugely (heh) limits style options -- just as, I'm sorry to say, being vastly overweight does. After a while, it's just not possible to accommodate a shape when there's little specific shape there.

    As to the politics? Well, the forties were informed both by shortages of raw material and a cultural need to get about the business of surviving under circumstances which demanded some national sacrifice. Flaunted busts were pretty much the antithesis of the generally embraced national mood.

    And, yes, in the 50s, all those competent women who'd worked in the munitions plants while the men were at war needed to be reminded that their destiny was bed, kitchen and kinder. Cone-shaped breasts were critical for two of those, and their role in human nutrition perhaps hinted at the third.

    Fashion IS repression. Even those of us who believe we've slipped the shackles probably have to acknowledge in the end that, however much we've escaped, we still make choices in response to "fashion", even if it's to reject it.

  4. Oh, I think the forties are more conducive to my body, and my personal favorite. The 50's are more shape enhancing, but my waist makes them look absurd most of the time, especially with circle skirts. The biggest exception is my wrap dress that is reminiscent of a Swirl Wrap dress because it is a flared skirt, no gathers. I am not huge, but short and have a large bust number due to broader shoulders, waist is not small having had many children, hips are in line with the bust. The forties fashions are a better fit for me. The 60s is a hit or miss.

  5. I've always loved the 50's look because of those beautiful hourglass figures (minus the bullet bras thank you) but my figure is definitely more 40's. I'm either a 2x4 or a 2x10 but either way you won't find much of a dent in my waist.

    You hear this all the time but it's so true, dress for the figure you have! I'm small busted with a thick waist but I have good legs so that's what I emphasize.

    Cathy looks great the way she is and as a member of the IBTC I thank her for not caving in to the pressure to alter her figure.

  6. IBTC -- I'm embarrassed to admit I KNOW what that is!

  7. Interesting. I think clothing can be repressive if it seeks to shroud or obscure one's individuality or sexuality and if the wearer has no say in the matter. But I think choosing to participate in fashion, here in the Western world at least, has more to do with tribal identity -- i.e., I identify with such-and-such a culture and this is how I do it -- than repression.

    We pick from a menu of fashion choices that all have some cultural meaning (we generally are not choosing between Hefty bag or canvas tarpaulin) but that's what we have available, right?

    It's hard to break free of the fashion system even if we wanted to.

  8. Why do you think I sew from vintage 1980s patterns? Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis patterns are particularly suitable for members of the IBTC. Instead of horizontal bust darts, they ease the front into the back, adding only SLIGHT shaping.

    I have an A-cup hourglass figure, shoulders balanced by hips, small waist. 1940s silhouettes would work for my figure, but not my casual lifestyle.

  9. Oh Peter, you ask one very easy question and one extremely difficult... I agree with Noile that I choose by the overall look, rather than the era, although I prefer the hourglass figure from the 50s. Probably because that fits my body shape at the moment. That's the answer to the easy question.

    As for the other and difficult question, I hardly dare write that I find the 50s look more feminine, but that's my straightforward answer to that. Nevertheless, I can see the points of fashion being repressive, but it's hard to fight the fashion influence in terms of equality. Say if women were to wear more sex neutral clothes, one would easily think that would include trousers and shirts, but that could also be seen as male oriented neutrality. But wearing dresses exaggerating the female body may be seen as anti-feminist and repressed. I guess these are the reasons I find discussions on feminism difficult.

  10. I'm a very small-busted girl, you know, modest A cup. I'm quickly finding that I have it so much easier with modern patterns, as everything so far has fit just fine, whereas I read blogs and horror stories on PR about FBAs gone bad and such. I'm actually quite happy to be small. Of course, I've got a behind to rival J-Lo. You should do a study in time of the derrière

  11. Peter - I've made a certain amount of study on this and feel that part of this was plain old timing and lack of food. The women who were in their 20s/30s in the 30s and 40s entered puberty much later than girls do today - and they grew up as children during a period of relative scarcity - the Great Depression. My mom had her first period when she was 17 - and she told me that she was not that unusual in her class. During the war, again, there was relative scarcity - but after the war, there were food assets more available t everyone - and people had more $$ to buy them. At the same time, you had designers like Dior who were celebrating the return to a less "military life".

  12. As a great, great grandaughter to a very strong woman who was at the very heart of the suffrage movement I'm only part of a family legacy holding women, their minds, their bodies and their aspirations on par with their male counterparts. That being said, I was brought up in a very waspy household. Lots of education, lots of preppy. Maybe that's why I live so conservatively and yet dress so lavishly? My one rebellious side - god I'm dull.

    As a classic hourglass I wear what works best for me. I can't wear much of what's out there because of my shape and so many vintage patterns don't work for me because I don't have that athletic figure the cut requires.

    Whenever a style requires a flat chest, it won't be in my closet no matter how incredible. It'll probably look like a sack of potatoes on me. So all of my vintage patterns let my chest just exist. I'm not getting into bullet bras or minimizers. I really enjoy being comfortable in my clothes - the shoes are my one consolation because I adore them.

    Unlike a previous poster, I don't see fashion as repression, something inflicted upon me. In Western countries, in these times, we have amazing leeway in personal adornment. Go to Mountain View, CA - Seattle, WA and some of the wealthiest people in this country are wearing Patagonia recycled fleece. Go to any city or university and you see thrifted. It's a green choice and it is fashion just not high fashion. Whether anyone is emphasing their busts or not I couldn't say.

  13. I think it does come down to having a choice: you can enjoy wearing the clothes of a particular period without embracing that period's values, esp. with regard to women and their role in society.

    Also, as long as we have eyes and a mind, we are all both objects and subjects. I can dress to provoke, but if no one recognizes it as such, what have I achieved? And we objectify all the time -- every time we pick up a fashion magazine or admire someone's attire. But that is not the same as demeaning or de-humanizing another person. (And don't we objectify ourselves in our attempt to be "attractive?")

    Is it possible -- or desireable -- to be only a subject?

  14. I generally can't do the forties look because I am naturally very chesty :(
    So I just accept it and go for the 50s/60s pin-up looks. In general, though, women simply got bustier because they plumped up anyways due to more nutrition.

  15. I am small busted and just made a junior's pattern from the 1950's. I do not have a sewing form and the darts (bosom) are up around my chin!!!!! I need a real bullet bra or major lift to get them in the proper postion for this dress....ahhh I will do the re-adjusting and get myself a form. I can't help myself though I LOVE the 1950's look. I would do almost anything to fill out a shelf bust the way Elizabeth Taylor is in the picture above. I find it glorious.

  16. It is an interesting contrast between the 40's and 50's fashions, and I feel the end of the war in 1945 goes a long way to explaining this.
    With many of the men/husbands away at war, women were probably expected to dress relatively demurely, and after all it was a serious era with many deaths.
    Once the men returned from the war and families were reunited, there was a lot more happiness and optimism for the future. I am sure a heavy load was lifted off many a shoulder and women felt a lot sexier as a result (these were the baby boom years!), and this is reflected in the delightful styles emphasising the female figure.
    I think to suggest that these women were repressed by their undergarments is untrue, in the context of the time I am sure they actually felt very liberated.

  17. This is interesting. I don't sew or dress vintage, but my favorite period is really the mid-sixties. I think clothes were really fun and cool then. We were just escaping preppiness and there seemed to be a new awareness of fashion. Skirt were rising and waistlines eased. However most of the fashion was tilted toward the very young. It was hard for an adult to find anything to wear.

    So, I doubt I would sew sixties-style for myself. But I still think of that time as the best for fashion.

    Now for me, with my fuller "mature" figure, the forties' look is too structured for comfort; the fifties' look is too dependent on corseting. (Been there, done that. No more.) But both looks are represented in fashion illustration with extreme examples. If you are interested in how people really dressed in those decades, take out your family albums from that time.

  18. As an average B cup, I find that I can choose fashions that emphasise or de-emphasise, depending on my mood. Some days I prefer to wear chest covering looser styles, other days I climb into the push up bra and wear the plunging neckline. The great thing about living in this period of time is that we can choose our style each day without importing any social and/or repressive mindset from another era.

  19. You are totally right about the obscuring of the bust in the 1940s. I hadn't seen it quite that way before. I'm small busted (actually more "small-chested", since my whole rib cage is narrow) and love the 40s and the 50s. 1960s are more of a challenge -- I have to re-shape them to keep from looking like I'm wearing a feed sack!

    I think the 40s look is more mature, and can run the risk of looking matronly, whereas 50s look can look too girlish (or at least the full-skirted designs I prefer can). As others have mentioned, the styles reflected the times, but I think both are feminine, albeit in different ways. I wonder how we'll sum up the fashions of today 50 years from now. What exactly do they embody about our times?

  20. I've never really thought much into it but I guess i'm naturally drawn to the style that suits me - being fifties hourglass.
    There is no way i could pull off flat chested 20's, 30's or 40's. I love the styles on other people, I've just never been inclinced to wear them myself.

  21. I have an hour glass figure so the 50's styles fit my body better. But women come in all shapes and sizes and all should be celebrated and represented.

    Embrace your body type! As soon as I did I found myself much happier and dare I say, more attractive! Everyone knows confidence is the most attractive thing a woman can wear. And I must say Cathy wears it well! She is a very beautiful woman!

  22. Two words that might help Cousin Cathy: chicken fillets

  23. What, you think she's protein-deficient?

  24. Not necessarily protein-deficient, but maybe hormone-deficient. ;) Just finished reading "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer and my world has been justly rocked.

    Back to the sewing... I'd say I'm small on top, but proportional. I have worn a variety of styles and they can all look decent. Mostly I'm concerned with how something feels when I wear it, and my range of motion. I tend toward dresses with definition at the bust, a little shaping at the waist, ease around the hip -- seems more 60's, a little 70's, and maybe contemporary (?).

  25. It seems I must explain. "Chicken fillets" are gel filled inserts that modestly bosomed ladies can put inside their bras for a bit of extra ooomph. They are pink and shaped like - you guessed it - chicken fillets. specialty bra shops sell them, usually with a balconette style bra with special pockets. Some bras come with inserts of their own. The world of underwear is full of dupicity. :)

  26. I have loved vintage since I was a kiddo, but as another member of the IBTC, as well as being a very petite lady, I had always struggled to make many of the vintage styles I liked work for me.

    When I finally discovered the styles (specifically the patterns) of the 30's and 40's I totally lost it. I shouted my excitement to anybody who would listen. I could wear beautiful vintage dresses without a saggy, baggy bust which made me feel like a little girl dressing up in her mother's clothing.

    The bust-waist propotions are also more generous, ie my 30" bust goes along with a 26" waist, compared to the 30" + 22" waist pairing of some 60's and 70's patterns. DuBarry patterns are my favorite, they seem to be the most generous in this field.

    I love love love 30's & 40's styles, but I think it has a lot to do with my love for simple geometric forms, details, tailoring and fondness for slightly-less-than-casual dress in general. My girlishness also creates some sort of balance with the 'matronliness' of many of the styles. Especially when I wear braids.


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