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Cleavage is the cleft between a woman's breasts lying over the sternum revealed by a garment with a low neckline. It is associated with low-cut women's clothing, such as evening gowns, swimwear, casual tops and other garments, designed to emphasize the display of breasts.

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. Many women use cleavage to enhance their sexual attractiveness. Some people derive erotic pleasure from seeing a woman's cleavage, some derive pleasure in their female partner's exposing her cleavage, and some women expose their cleavage for the pleasure of their partner.

Cleavage terms

Décolletage (or décolleté, its adjectival form, in current French) is cleavage produced by a low-cut neckline that exposes the neck, shoulders and parts of the breasts, but not the nipple. In strict usage the term denoted the neckline, the zone extending about twohandbreadths from the base of the neck down, obverse and recto. Only after the French Revolution did the décolletage become larger in the front and smaller in the back.

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.


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


Exposure of the underside of the breast, such as below an extremely short crop top, is known as neathage, Australian cleavage (because of the British reference to Australia as down-under), bottom cleavage, reverse cleavage, underboob. It is referred to by the term shitapai (shita+oppai: under-breasts) in Japanese.


In European society, décolletage was often displayed in the dress of the late Middle Ages. This continued through the Victorian period. Corsets that enhance the cleavage were introduced in the mid 16th century. By the late 18th century these cleavage enhancing corsets grew more dramatic in pushing the breasts upwards.It is a feature of the evening gown, leotard, and bikini, among other fashions. 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 Moissy's play The True Mother, the title character rebukes her husband for treating her 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?" Nearly a century later, also in France, a man from the provinces who attended a Court ball at the Tuilleriesmarker in Parismarker 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!"

For ordinary wear, high collars were, however, the norm for many years. When it became fashionable, around 1913, for dresses to be worn with a modest round or V-shaped neckline, this nonetheless deeply shocked clergymen all over the world. In the German Empiremarker, all of the Roman Catholic bishops joined in issuing a pastoral letter attacking modern fashions. Fashions became more restrained in terms of décolletage, while exposure of the leg became more permitted in Western societies, during World War I and remained so for nearly half a century. From the 1960s onward, however, changing social mores allowed a greater display of cleavage in films, on television, and in everyday life.

Lingerie has long been designed to emphasize cleavage. 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. More recently, after corsets became unfashionable, brassieres and padding have served to project, display and emphasize the breasts, as has breast augmentation surgery.

Cleavage theory

Britishmarker zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris theorizes that cleavage is a sexual signal that imitates the image of the cleft between the buttocks, 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", though Morris notes that in recent years there has been a trend toward reversing breast augmentations. Several brassiere manufacturers, among them Wonderbra and Victoria's Secret, have become known for marketing products that enhance the décolletage. On the first Friday of April in South Africa, Wonderbra sponsors a National Cleavage Day. According to social historian David Kunzle, waist confinement and the décolletage are the primary sexualization devices of Western costume. 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.

Cultural aspects

In Western and some other societies, there are differences of opinion as to how much cleavage exposure is acceptable in public. In contemporary Western society, the extent to which a woman may expose her breasts depends on social and cultural context. Women's swimsuits and bikinis commonly reveal the tops and sides of the breasts. Displaying cleavage is considered permissible in many settings, and is even a sign of elegance and sophistication on many formal social occasions, but it may be prohibited by dress codes in settings such as workplaces and schools, where any display of the female breast may be considered inappropriate. Showing the nipples or areolae is almost always considered toplessness or partial nudity.


In the United States, in two separate incidents in 2007, Southwest Airlinesmarker 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. German Chancellor Angela Merkel created controversy when she wore a low-cut dress to the opening of the Oslo Opera Housemarker on 12 April 2008.

See also


  1. Bernard Rudofsky. The unfashionable human body‎, page 62, Doubleday, 1971.
  2. S. Devadas Pillai. Indian sociology through Ghurye, a dictionary, page 68, Popular Prakashan, 1997, ISBN 8171548075.
  3. West's federal supplement (First Series), p. 994, West Publishing Co, 1990.
  4. 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.
  5. Tim Lott, " A boob too far", The Guardian, 2006-08-06.
  6. Shitapai by Sankaku, Jan 9, 2009.
  7. Jill Condra. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History, page 152, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008, ISBN 0313336644.
  8. Catherine Spooner. Fashioning gothic bodies, Page 28, Manchester University Press, 2004, ISBN 0719064015.
  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. Gernsheim, 94.
  12. Kim K. P. Johnson, Susan J. Torntore, and Joanne Bubolz Eicher. Fashion foundations, page 716, Berg Publishers, 2003, ISBN 185973619X.
  13. Gernsheim, pp. 25-26, 43, 53, 63.
  14. Desmond Morris. The Naked Woman. A Study of the Female Body, p. 156. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004. ISBN 0-312-33853-8.
  15. Desmond Morris. Manwatching. A Field Guide to Human Behavior.. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977. ISBN 0-8109-1310-0.
  16. 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).
  17. Morris. Manwatching, pp. 236, 240.
  18. Morris. Naked Woman, pp. 156-159.
  19. National Cleavage Day
  20. Jennifer Craik. The Face of Fashion, page 122, Routledge, 1993, ISBN 0203409426.
  21. Michael Carter. Fashion classics from Carlyle to Barthes, page 732, Berg Publishers, 2003, ISBN 1859736068.
  22. Salmansohn, Karen. " The Power of Cleavage". The Huffington Post, October 29, 2007.
  23. NBC News. Woman told she was too Hot to Fly.
  24. " Merkel 'Surprised' by Attention to Low-cut Dress" Spiegel Online, 15 April 2008.
  25. " Angela Merkel Raises Eyebrows with Cleavage Display". Deutsche Welle, 15 April 2008.
  26. Ada Calhoun, " Angela Merkel: Now That's Cleavage". News Bloggers, 16 April 2008.


  • 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

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