The Politics of Breasts: Tracing The History Of The Chest-Forward Movement In Art And Fashion


Fashion is in constant conversation with the cultural zeitgeist. While the micro-trend frenzy is far more fleeting, pertinent trends and themes become real conversation starters, often holding up a mirror to societal changes. Currently the fashion’s spotlight is placed firmly on breasts. They’re everywhere. From Schiaparelli’s gilded breastplates, the resurgence of conical bras in 2022 and bejewelled nipple motifs from 2023 haute couture runways, Prada’s sweaters with visible underwired bras, to Rick Owens’s sheer fabric drape baring it all in Spring/Summer 2023 — fashion seems to be returning to its surrealistic chest obsession, often crossing paths with art and design.

“Cosmic Ocean” by artist Shilo Shiv Suleman

Into the Archives

A woman’s chest has always been at the centre of patriarchal politics, from being eroticised and marginalised to being regulated at the free will of men. Contrary to the tropes of present-day morality, breasts weren’t always hidden in ancient times. Visual documentation of historical archives has depicted female figures with bare breasts. For reference, on the one hand, Greek sculptor Praxiteles’s creation Aphrodite of Knidos showcased the goddess naked and became a pathbreaking moment in the Classical Period. On the other, Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus from the Renaissance Period depicting goddess Venus emerging from the sea with her hands on her breasts and long tresses covering her vagina, is still considered a benchmark in the representation of the female body in art.

Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Back home, similar artistic references to the female form from ancient and medieval India show bare breasts with no censorship. Artist, illustrator and activist Shilo Shiv Suleman, whose work highlights the divine feminine form, shares, “If you look at some of our The Politics ofBreasts In light of fashion’s reclaimed obsession with the female body, Shivpriya Bajpai traces the history of the chest-forward movement “Cosmic Ocean” by artist Shilo Shiv Suleman 127 October ancient traditions and creative expressions, the telltale sign of the divine feminine was of ‘Digambara’, meaning she wore nothing but the skin of the skies. For centuries, artists who have made women their muses were predominantly male. The tragic regulation of our bodies today highlights the hypocritical state of our society where ultimately the people given agency of when women’s body needs to be revealed or concealed tend to be men or male artists.” Also, internalised misogyny often makes women the carriers of patriarchy. There’s shame associated with everything, from a bra strap showing, not wearing a bra, to too much cleavage. However, the tradition of wearing a blouse with a saree was a Victorian invention, Suleman adds.

“Armour” by artist Shilo Shiv Suleman

The marked shift in the attitude towards breasts stemmed from the politics of colonisation. It took the bra revolution in the 20th century, helmed by Mary Phelps Jacobs to break free from the clutches of whalebone corsets. Later, the rise of pop culture attributed to a shift directing women to stand against patriarchy, and breasts became symbolic of the evolved narrative. Designer Jean Paul Gaultier dressed Madonna in his cone-shaped bra for her Blonde Ambition Tour in the ‘90s, and it became one of the most iconic pop culture references to date. In their ambitious pursuit to portray women in a powerful light, fashion designers were fascinated by body armour and sculpted female forms. From Yves Saint Laurent’s collaboration with sculptors Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne in 1969 for a series of chest and torso casts of model Verushka, Issey Miyake’s futuristic moulded corsets, to Thierry Mugler’s motorcycle- inspired bustier and Alexander Mcqueen’s quirky experimentations to exude both power and the plight of women, were no less than social-commentary through sartorial experimentation.

The New Wave

In India, couturier Suneet Varma was one of the first designers to showcase gold polished breastplates paired with silk saree in 1991. Since then, our designers have come a long way in taking the discourse forward. Think sheer fabric, corsetry, statement necklines, and sculpted details — working in tandem to shed the taboo around the female bust. The thought has surpassed clothing today to reach new heights of innovative depiction. For instance, the designer and founder of the accessories label Misho, Suhani Parekh, channelled her unique design vocabulary into couture gold-plated breastplates strung together with luxe crystals including hematite, onyx and lapis lazuli. “Be it for art’s sake or a sign of protest, it’s hard to imagine an image of the female body, breasts in particular, devoid of some political context. I seek inspiration from the female body. The idea is to trace the contours and build upon its architecture to create a second skin of sculpted gold,” Parekh shares.

Ayesha Kanga in Misho Couture featuring 24k gold-plated bronze sculpture wraps

In 2016 Carina Hardy launched Elppin–a breast-inspired jewellery brand based out of Bali, Indonesia. Through it she challenges censorship of nipples and societal norms in general. “I see breasts everywhere, in human-made forms and the natural world. Breasts are incredibly full of tension and rich for exploration. If we wear jewellery on our wrists, ears, necks and fingers, why not our chests? I want us to question and challenge our perception, combatting patriarchy with beauty and expansive self-expression. Each one of our experiences with our breasts and bodies is different, and there is no space to engage in these discussions in our society today,” Hardy shares.

Jewellery by Elppin

As fashion and art keep crossing paths to overthrow the centuries- old taboo, one thing is for certain: the piqued obsession today departs from the narrative of erotic admiration or mere shock factor with the influence of size diversity as result of the female gaze. However, the collective endeavours continue to clash with cultural policing to date. Suleman says, “While my audience tends to be radical in their forms of expression, I am also aware of the brickbats one has to face. From digital censorship, slut-shaming on the internet, to the fear of backlash if one ‘offends’ religious sentiments in some way. There are so many opinions one has to navigate as an artist and a woman.” Suleman is still hopeful of a fearless future where the female form is not burdened with the shame of the world and the weight of having to represent what is known and defined as its culture. We hope for bodily autonomy and freedom.

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Also read, ELLE Features: A Mind Meld

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