Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Cleavage

What festive cleavage are you wearing this holiday season? Next to finishing up the gift shopping, I'm sure the first thing on your mind is how to dress up your breasts. At the cocktail party I attended last weekend, I was accused of a Madame X look, a reference to John Singer Sargent's infamous 1884 portrait of the American-born Paris socialite, Judith Gautreau. Her arsenic white décolleté and scandalous slipped shoulder strap drove Sargent (and the painting) out of town.

Think times have changed? Last July, when Hillary Clinton displayed even a very modest amount of chest the blogosphere went wild.

Cleavage is simply the cleft created by the partial exposure of a woman's breasts in a low-cut neckline. Or, if you're a surgeon, it's the intermammary sulcus (fun people, aren't they?). So what gives it the power to shake the world, century after century? Context, context, context. That and men are irrational over it.

Breast cleavage has been a modern, clothed phenomenon; it didn't exist in the Garden of Eden. Any tight, well-structured bodice can lift the breasts upwards and inwards (that was the wonderful in Wonderbra – as opposed to Maidenform lift and separate promise).

Prior to the advent of implants, a large busted woman's breasts merged together under pressure; cleavage became a crevice. Think Bette Midler. A really well engineered bodice can cantilever the breasts in such a way that this is minimized. Think Isaac Mizrahi observations about Scarlett Johansson's Golden Globes dress.

But when it comes to breast implants, the width of the sulcus area (cleavage) is determined by the attachments of the skin to the peri-osteal tissue covering sternum (breast bone) and by the medial attachments of the pectoralis major muscle when implants are in the sub-muscular position.

If those natural attachments are lost a host of uncorrectable deformities distort the cleavage including synmastia, the "uniboob" deformity. This can result from over aggressive dissection towards the midline, particularly in a subglandular (over the muscle) placement. Very large implants, repeated over time can have similar results. Think Pamela Anderson.

Some women have very little fatty tissue overlying the sternum so there's nothing to soften the contour transition from breasts to sternum. This causes the space between the breasts to appear wide. Since the implants must be centered behind the nipples, it's very hard to camouflage, particularly with a subglandular placement. Think Victoria Beckham. (This is something she previously denied until court papers were released in 2005 proving she had undergone augmentation surgery; it's rumored she had revision surgery prior to touring this month. Looks like it to me.)

One woman has written a tome on doing it right. Elisabeth Squires, author of Boobs: A Guide to Your Girls, thinks even older women can attractively show off cleavage, as Helen Mirren (61) does at every awards show. But beware: "If a woman of a certain age squeezes her girls together, she'll get the wrinkled, crepelike look. That's not good." Mirren's plunging bodices carefully avoid that.

Now back to the festive part. Here we have our Christmas party Goofus and Gallant example. For the office holiday party, author Squires's advice is: "[i]f cleavage isn't in your job description, don't put it in." Sorry, Britney. But the adults-only cocktail party? You've got it, Paris. Shake their world: tasteful cleavage and heels are the way to go (but put on the other stocking, puh-leeze).

Be sure and tune in FM107.1 to hear an expanded exploration of celebratory cleavage with Colleen Kruse this Thursday at 10:00am CST, subbing in for Kevyn Burger.

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