A Brief History of Décolletage in Western Fashion
Posted on March 21 2019
Dé·colle·tage - /dāˌkäləˈtäZH/
Noun: a low neckline on a woman’s dress or top. Refers to the upper part of a woman’s torso, comprising of her neck, shoulders, back, and chest, that is exposed by the neckline of her clothing.
In French, décolleter means ‘to reveal the neck'. Throughout history, there has been a wide variety of ways women choose to reveal or conceal this area of their body - all being unique and timeless in their own ways. We’re here to break some of them down.
Victorian fashion is often described as being “dictated by propriety” and “stylish garments were a sign of respectability”. As with other areas in their lives, women were limited in their choice of style and fashion. A fuller bust and small waists were very much in Vogue during this time and was often achieved by using a heavily boned corset. Despite the desire for a fuller looking chest, busts were expected to be covered at all times. This prudent expectation resulted in the prevalence of high necklines, often going up to under their chins.
THE ROARING 20’S
Trying to distance themselves from the previous beauty ideals of the voluptuous Gibson Girl, this era ushered in a new meaning of femininity. Women engaged in the new flapper style, which championed flat chests and thin, androgynous bodies. Because this was the beauty standard of the time, women who had fuller busts would often try to flatten their chests by bandaging them with long strips of cloth or by using rubber “bust flatteners”. The rubber chest flatteners, especially, were notoriously uncomfortable due to the lack of air circulation the material provided.
The decade of the 1940’s was deeply impacted by World War II, bringing with it the need for strict fabric rations. Due to the simplicity of garments, women began to get creative with the necklines of their garments. Nothing was too revealing, but a more interesting variety of shapes emerged such as square, slit, sweetheart, keyhole, shirred, cross front (wrap), or V cut.
1970’s - THE ‘ME’ DECADE
The 1970s is often referred to as the Decade of Decadence, the ‘Me’ decade and the decade of excess and androgyny. While Hippies were all about “freedom and embracing what makes you you,” disco fashion was also taking over, and the more scandalous, the better. Because of this, necklines and silhouettes became increasingly varied, encompassing every style from the deepest of plunged v’s and tops made entirely of see-through mesh, to more modest turtle necks. One of the most mainstream and popular garments of this style was the jersey wrap dress designed by Diane von Furstenberg in 1971, because it could be worn to work, discos and nightclubs and as an added bonus, the flattering cut of the dress appealed to women of many different body types.
2000’s - THE AUGHTS
The 2000’s was the decade of boobs. Starting off with JLo attending the Grammys in that infamous green dress, it was the decade of water bras, gel bras, spandex, push up bras and Wonder Bras. Any support garment that would give you that almost-unnatural look of perfectly round and overly perky breasts was a staple in all women’s closets. Women wanted the look of bigger and more perfect boobs, as evidenced by the rise of Victoria’s Secret popularity (which was making over $6 billion annually) as well as the increase in breast enhancement cosmetic surgery (which, to this day, remains the most common surgery in the US).
Necklines reflected this trend, popularizing low cut blouses, t’s, tanks, bodysuits, and any garment that would show off this asset. It also wasn't uncommon for teens to layer many skin-tight shirts (remember when that was fashionable?), for added support and smoothing, but always with cleavage on display. And although strapless styles were still around, women and girls usually opted for garments that would allow them to discreetly hide the straps of their bras (layering also helped with this).
2010’s - PRESENT DAY
It seems like anything goes as far as the decolletage is concerned. People pull inspiration from every decade of fashion more than ever before, and style is all just a matter of personal preference. We seem to continue stressing this idea that fashion is a reflection of one’s individuality, and whether that’s JLo-level cleavage, a turtleneck or no shirt at all (proceed with caution, and maybe don’t get arrested for public nudity), women are free to make their own choices.
Although Vogue declared “cleavage dead” in 2016, that doesn't seem to have happened, as that article was met with immense public outrage. Just looking at the Kardashians, the iconic style and fashion influencers of our time, this declaration can be debunked fairly quickly. The real movement in the 2010s is all about inclusivity, diversity, and acceptance of all body types. That’s what women today are deeming beautiful.