#AllChestsWelcome: The History of Covering Chests Is a History of Changing Them

While researching this theme month, I found that for large portions of history, the human experience (this sweeping statement is rather Eurocentric, but I will get to that!) of dressing chests is one of trying to alter it. I love that sewing can help us to unlock the reasons we wear what we do and decide whether altering the shape of our chest is something we want or need to do. If you are interested in finding out more about the history of lingerie specifically, check out Jacinta’s brilliant post for last year’s Over/Under theme.

Throughout history, chest binding has existed as a means of gender affirmation. Men and non-binary people who were assigned female at birth have bound their chests with fabric to address the dysphoria they experience around their body. A particular example is Michael Dillon, a transgender pioneer who reportedly bound his chest from an early age before undergoing gender-affirming medical procedures. Historically, these bindings were often tightly wound strips of fabric wrapped around the chest. Nowadays, chest binders are tightly fitting garments and can be bought ready to wear or tailor-made for individuals to ensure that safety, comfort, and style are right for the wearer.

One person sits to the foreground, they have brown skin, short black hair and piercings. They are modelling a chest binder. Several people of different ethnic backgrounds stand behind modelling their chest binders.
Various people model their chest binders
Image: gc2b marketing campaign photograph

Forms of chest binding and flattening have also been common at various stages for cis women as fashion, cultural dress, and even religion have dictated that flat chests are preferred. The stays and corsets of the 18th and 19th century proved the virtuousness of their wearers and by extension their celibacy, a Christian preoccupation of the time, while the flappers of the 1920s were rebelling against earlier Edwardian styles which accentuated curves by binding chests and wearing loose-fitting clothing to achieve a straighter, flatter body. In East Asian countries such as in South Korea with the traditional Hanbok dress, some women bind their chests to ensure the line of traditional clothes is uninterrupted.

In the West, the Second World War and the 1950s shifted the emphasis from the androgynous body types preferred in the 1920s to an extreme femme shape. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell popularised an hourglass, voluptuous shape, and bullet bras and girdles became de rigeur. Even through to the 1980s and 1990s, Wonderbra lifted, enhanced, and told femme women that cleavage was most definitely the thing to have. Bras even promised an additional few cup sizes if you didn’t fit into the current desirable aesthetic.

Two fashion catalogue images show women in “bullet” bras, cone shaped white undergarments that lift and separate their breasts.
1950s bra catalogue photographs
Image: BBC News, “M&S archive images chart the history of the bra”

Although these chest changes seem to disproportionately impact men assigned female at birth and women, cis men were not exempt from sartorial attempts to alter their chest or change what they wear upon it in the name of fashion. Doublets of the 16th Century were padded waistcoats or jackets which accentuated certain areas and “hid” others, usually dependent on the physical appearance of the societal leaders and monarchs of the time. Although not designed to change chest shape, the men’s vest (an undershirt for American readers) was rendered embarrassingly dated by the simple act of Clark Gable removing his shirt and showing a bare chest in It Happened One Night in 1934.

Of course this is all, as I say, rather Eurocentric. There are many people throughout the world who do not cover their chests because they do not have the same sexualised or gendered notions of bodies. Often, the history of chest covering is also the history of violent colonialism, religious influence, and patriarchal and/or capitalist control. To name but a few, the Nádleehi of the Navajo Nation, the Fa’afafine of Samoa, and the Hijra of India cannot be described using a European sense of binary gender yet colonising forces attempted to erase these identities through the enforcement of strictly gendered clothing.

A black and white image depicts a Two Spirit or Nádleehi person wearing traditional dress sitting with a musical instrument.
A two-spirit person weaving
Image: “The ‘two-spirit’ people of indigenous North American’s”, Walter L Williams, The Guardian UK

All this is to say: This theme month, take a moment and consider how and why you dress your chest. Your space on the gender spectrum, your comfort, your culture, and your personal history will all likely mean that the clothes you sew to cover your torso are entirely your own—unique and yet part of a long shared history. Will you sew bras, corsets, binders, or vests, or perhaps you might consider eschewing them all?

Sophy is from England but currently lives and sews in Hong Kong. She is a temporary Sewcialists Editor and can be found online at @sophy_sews_hk.

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