September was style month at Movieline magazine. So the focus was on fashion. In the September 1990 issue, Alexis Matthews observed that big boobs were making a comeback.
It seems I can’t get away from them. I can’t open a magazine, see a movie, turn on MTV, or walk down the street without seeing them. And if that isn’t bad enough, I come face to face with them on the job. I’m a society reporter in Los Angeles, which affords me the opportunity to see just about every trend in the United States when it first appears. And what I’ve been seeing everywhere is: tits. Melon-esque, bowling ball-sized, or just plain perky, there they are, set off by Mizrahi, Alaïa-hell, even Armani. Of course, in the physical world breasts have always been around. In the fashion world, however breasts come and go. They’ve been back in a big way with fashion designers high and low for a couple of years now. And in its best tradition of exploitation, Hollywood is right out there at the cutting edge of this popular movement. As a woman, I wouldn’t necessarily notice someone’s breasts unless they were, say, Sally Kirkland’s. But these days, total strangers practically rub your nose in them–from all the way across the room.
Not long ago I spotted actress Mimi Rogers at a screening wearing a classic tailored pantsuit and a low-cut T-shirt, under which a push-up bra was working overtime. Her breasts were squeezed into what looked like a shelf on which she could nicely station her popcorn tub. At the Batman premiere, last summer, my photographer had to be told it was OK to go ahead and shoot Kim Basinger, decked out as she was in a blouse and skirt through which her black bra and panties could be seen from a mile away. I figured that if she was willing not only to go out in public dressed that way, but to go out with her Dad as her escort, then it would be all right to have a photo of her appear the next morning for people to look at as they scooped up their Frosted Flakes.
The tits trend has now reached not only epic, but comic, proportions. Actresses lining up for photographs at Hollywood bashes these days end up in a battle of the boobs– whose are higher, whose are rounder, whose can stick out furthest, whose are least covered up. Starlets with no talent and no credits have always done this. But now mammary exhibitionism is no longer the desperate strategy of unknowns. Rosanna Arquette, Virginia Madsen, Julia Roberts, Winona Ryder, Sharon Stone… the list of those whose breasts we have willingly or unwillingly noticed goes on and on.
Older stars and celebrities, who we might expect to know better than to expose more of their topography than is strictly necessary, don’t. Of these ladies, Jane Fonda has perhaps fared the best. Opinion was at least divided about just how successfully she brought off that blue, beaded number at last spring’s Oscars. With different results, Beverly Hills society figures like Candy Spelling and Jayne Weintraub have taken to sliding their six-figure jewels down cleavage deliberately enhanced by five-figure dresses. Women who would properly be dowagers in another city (or in this one ten years ago) now blithely ignore the fact that time and gravity do take their toll. They’re still packing themselves into low V-necklines, exposing reptilian flesh illuminated by diamond brooches– just in case you weren’t sure where to look.
I began to notice that breasts were making a big comeback a year or so ago when I was in the ladies’ room at Nicky Blair’s, the Sunset Strip watering hole tucked between Le Dome and Spago. A whole militia of AMWs (actress/model/whatevers) stood at the mirror in the throes of collective breast envy. Just as I was thinking, life isn’t fair, I heard one starlet say to her friend as they passed by me on their way back out to the bar, “I’m sure she bought those boobs.”
Which brings us to an important point. Without much reflection, you can trace the tits trend of today back to the fitness craze that began at the turn of the last decade. Here’s how I figure it. It’s 1982. You’ve stopped doing as much cocaine as you used to do, and you’ve started working out a little bit, to Jane Fonda’s new tape. You’ve noticed that your body’s gained some definition, and the number of guys who turn around to look at you has doubled. So now you really go to work and pretty soon you have a full-fledged aerobics addiction going and you watch yourself obsessively in the sweeping gym mirror, and sooner or later you realize that Jane Fonda’s workout only gets you so far. Sure, we were all told as teenagers that doing those incredibly stupid bust exercises would turn us into voluptuous pinup girls overnight. And we all found out that was a crock. The answer back then was tissues down your bathing suit. The answer these days is Plastic Surgery.
The real solution to the mystery of why so many women in Hollywood (and elsewhere) are suddenly so eager to show off their breasts is simply that an astonishing number of these women have just bought them. (In 1988, some 71,720 women in the U.S. got breast implants; another 12,440 had breast lifts–and all of them go to the same parties I do.) Breasts are the newest luxury item. Talk about conspicuous consumption. I know one cellular phone magnate who cut a great deal with a local plastic surgeon: the doctor got a car phone, the exec’s wife got new breast implants. Well, fur coats are out, so you might as well buy boobs.
It’s hardly surprising that plastic surgery denial is now a resume requirement for many a star’s publicist. One of my favorite explanations for a suddenly bigger bustline is that the woman has just been taking care of herself lately–you know, getting a lot of rest, eating right, that sort of thing. Right. Although most stars deny having had breast implants or lifts, not all do. Cher admits to altering her body with not only a boob job, but orthodontia and a new nose as well. Refreshingly enough, Cher has no apologies–she’s been quoted as saying about the entertainment community, “This is a business that eats its young.”
A recent visit to the Lingerie Museum at Frederick’s of Hollywood (home of crotchless underwear and peekaboo nighties) reminded me that the last time breasts got this kind of play, Hollywood was totally, as opposed to partially, responsible. In the ’40s Howard Hughes realized his own fantasies by building a bra that would lift Jane Russell to stardom and bring more attention to breasts than they’d seen since corsets went out. The apotheosis of this new style was achieved when Russell starred alongside Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, at a time when every studio had a bosomy Monroe imitator (Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, Sheree North) whose cleavage was enhanced by costume designers like Bill Travilla, Helen Rose, and Edith Head. Liz Taylor was part of this tradition and has stayed remarkably faithful to it, not only during the Twiggy ’60s, but later, in her fat period, when she always managed to find a nice low-cut muu-muu.
Remember the feminist movement? When women burned bras? (I don’t remember, were women supposed to be more comfortable without them?) Anyway, The feminist ’70s were hard times for tits. It was difficult to tell that Annie Hall even had any. But all that was reversed when, in the ’80s, Madonna came on the scene to return sexism to some of its former glory. Fans too young to remember Marilyn Monroe as anyone but the blonde who slept with a lot of Kennedys unwittingly welcomed the second coming. Madonna went from aping Marilyn in the “Material Girl” video to inventing the underwear-as-streetwear look. (Ask lingerie manufacturers who has been the single biggest influence in the brassiere sales boom of the past decade and they’ll invariably cite Madonna.) She even brought back the 19th century bosom with her bustier and Merry Widow looks. And on her recent Blond Ambition tour, a deliberate bid to take things completely over the top, she enlisted bad-boy couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier to make her a Merry Widow with conical cups which she wore over her outerwear. Through all her transformations, Madonna’s had one basic message, and it’s not a new one: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” (This dictum has, of course, been amended to read, “If you don’t have it, get it.”)
A mere trend becomes a major style when it hits at all levels of fashion, from the sleaziest storefront dives to the most elegant chicer-than-thou boutiques. What Madonna and The Great Historical Dialectic began, high fashion quickly carried forward. The dead giveaway that big breasts were genuinely big fashion was the sudden appearance of sizeable chests on traditionally flat runway models. A runway photograph of Paulina Porizkova in a pink Donna Karan cashmere wrap sweater set the whole thing in motion two summers ago, but Donna Karan was not the only comparatively demure couturier to give cleavage a big play. It seems the only thing designers haven’t done to their clothes is include a big arrow pointing to the bustline with a sign saying, “Look at THESE!”
Thierry Mugler and Azzedine Alaia have been breast-obsessed for years, designing what a friend of mine calls “mistress clothes.” Their ascendancy to even greater heights over the last couple of years is thus hardly a surprise. The same could be said for Gaultier, one of whose looks for fall is a see-through sequined blouse with a bra visible beneath. Other looks for last spring and this fall include Gianni Versace’s strapless mini evening dress with the bodice cut to resemble a faceted gem, Norma Kamali’s demi-cup bra and mini-skirt, and Dolce &. Gabbana’s wrapped and tied top that evokes an image of breast bondage. Even Giorgio Armani’s softened, tailored jackets, worn slightly slouchier than usual, were shown without a blouse and with cleavage to spare. Karl Lagerfeld, long credited with taking the prissiness out of Chanel suits since he took over the line years ago, went a tad further and showed opened jackets accented with nothing but a string of pearls. But no one translated the look more literally than Yves Saint Laurent, whose collection included a toga dress with one breast completely exposed.
Hollywood has done its part over the last few years both to create the big tits trend and to amplify it. Remember Jamie Lee Curtis’s celebrated display back in 1983’s Trading Places. Kim Basinger’s striptease in 9½ Weeks didn’t reveal all but it did conjure up memories for those who had seen her on the pages of Playboy a couple of years before. Certainly, the look that Madonna sported in Desperately Seeking Susan was one of the farthest reaching of her fashion statements, and with Dick Tracy she had design genius Milena Canonero’s help in giving an elegant edge to what is basically a formfitting Jessica Rabbit look. And for “legitimizing” the fixation on breasts, no one outstrips Melanie Griffith‘s contribution in Working Girl. Griffith may be the only actress to receive an Oscar nomination for a role that required her to do her vacuuming topless. You can decide for yourself whether it was Tess’s hard work or attractive breasts that got her to the top, but she definitely had a ’90s attitude when she said, “I have a head for business and a bod for sin.”
We can count on the movies to continue to exploit the new breast fashion–for the big screen it’s almost too good to be true. And so, the movies will play their traditional role, spreading this trend the whole way to the suburbs of Peoria. And in the ongoing climate of celebrity mania, what anyone misses in the movie theater, they’ll catch on the pages of People and Us. As I’ve said, the newer, bigger breasts, all dressed up in the newer, tighter, scantier fashions, are inescapable. I’m beginning to feel a little like Woody Allen in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)— the sequence where he’s chased through the countryside by a giant breast. I want to scream, “Enough, already!” and like Woody, brandish a cross to fend off this unnatural force.
Alexis Matthews is a nom de plume for an omnipresent freelance social historian.