The Female Breast In History The Female Breast and the History of Western Civilization Throughout the ages, the female body has been revered as a work of art and beauty and as a source of life, from which all people are born. The breast is one of the most predominate features of a woman and stands out as a symbol of womanliness and livelihood. Eroticism, nourishment, abundance, hunger, feminine power, as well as feminine subservience, are different contradicting themes of the breast played out in time. Different repeating views of its importance and the way it should be displayed are used to reflect upon the views of women of the time and life in Western society in general. At times, it is near-worshipped as a sign of sexuality, or as a sign of nourishment.
Other times it is secured down, sometimes a sign of the inferiority of women or, conversely, as a sign of women’s liberation and their equality to men. Whether it is intentional or subconscious, how the breast is viewed throughout history is a direct reflection of the views of the time. Legends about the breast have appeared in a variety of cultures. Greek, Indian, and Native American myth all contain stories which involve biting a breast. For example, Hercules was said to have gotten his extra-human strength from biting the breast of Hera as an infant.
This and other such stories can be symbolic of an attack on Mother Nature or the earth goddess, and of man’s ability to overcome her (Latteier 146). Women with multiple sets of breasts are a reoccurring theme in Western society, symbolizing fruitfulness. The Greek goddess Artenis of Ephesus had nearly twenty breasts on her chest. Medieval Christian stories often involve the breasts and breast milk of the Virgin Mary. Next to the blood of Jesus Christ, her milk was the most holy and most miraculous of fluids, its wonders retold in numerous poems, stories, and songs (Yalom 44).
She was said to have appeared to Saint Barnard when he was praying and offered him a stream of her breast milk to drink from (46). A fourth century prostitute was said to have been spared the death penalty by baring her breasts to the judges, who were so impressed by their beauty that they acquitted her (20). Minoan society on the island of Crete honored the breast. Women’s clothing was designed to let the breasts show through. Women were placed in high social positions and power.
Their breasts stood for material wealth, political power, and sacredness. The Minoans are given credit as the first people to use a corset. They wore bodices that laced below the bust, lifting and exposing the breasts (Winston). Priestesses known as snake goddesses were notorious for large breasts and snakes that coiled around their arm, both symbols of their power, potency mixed with sustenance (Yalom 15). Classic Greek society praised masculinity and repressed femininity.
Women were encouraged to stay at home and they few little rights. Only the Hetaerae, a special upper class of women, were able to participate in social activities of men. The apodemos, a linen article worn by the Hetaerae, was considered to be the first brassiere (Silverman). It, however, usually flattened the breasts instead of accentuating them, reflecting the anti-feminine views of the time. With the rise of Christianity, the breasts and the flesh in general were discouraged from being exposed.
The stomach was considered to be more of an important center of female sexuality, with rounded bellies being more attractive (Broby-Johansen 131). This was modeled after the Virgin Mary whose round belly contained the savior (Yalom 40). It wasn’t until the fourteenth century and the Renaissance that this began to change. Explosive creativity and art occurred despite great famine and disease. As people became more frivolous, clothing became more revealing, and the neckline lowered to show cleavage (Latteire 31). In the seventeenth century, the breasts once again became the predominate center of female attractiveness over the belly. It was fruitful like the stomach, but more sensual.
It stood as a symbol of power and wealth at a time when mercantilism was on the rise in Europe (Latteire 32). The corset, which was previously used to flatten the breasts, was used to push in the stomach and push out the breasts (Winston). Louis XIV of France’s personal taste was a factor in this, as he demanded lower necklines for all the court women. He considered it a sign of respect to him and to the Deity (Latteire 33). After the French Revolution, there was about a decade of naturalism.
Romanticism rejected fashions and norms of the former aristocracy, such as the use of the powdered wig, which was banned. Independence and freedom of expression were key and an outpour of emotional awakening occurred. The breasts were popular as symbols of emotion and naturalism. Breast-feeding regained popularity. In fact, the French government demanded that women who wanted government support must nurse their babies (Yalom 113). It was regarded as a civic duty that embraced the new government and rejected the old regime. In some circles, women’s clothing was nearly transparent with the breasts showing through.
Many women stopped wearing the corset and chose a more natural look (Broby-Johansen 142). In time, this Romanticism calmed down, and so did clothing and the corset returned to the scene. In 1839, Jean Wearly patented a machine for making corsets and set up a factory in France (Winston). Until this time, corsets were a luxury for the upper classes. Now they were readily produced for a reasonable price that could be afforded by the masses. The proper display of the breasts and waist through corsets became an important part of fashion society.
Corset companies began to advertise in fashion magazines. Slowly, it became acceptable to show pictures of the corsets in magazines. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes. There were sleeping corsets, leisure corsets, pregnancy corsets, nursing corsets, bathing corsets, horseback riding corsets, etc. (Yalom 168) The English preferred long corsets that extended over the hips while the French preferred shorter models (Broby-Johansen 183). At the turn of the century …