In the beginning, fashion rules had consequences. The ancient Greeks - the first to scribe laws on who could wear what - banned women from wearing jewellery and embroidered robes ‘unless she was a professed and public prostitute’. The Romans took offence at the cost of purple dye so outlawed its usage and the Victorians regulated the outfits and hairstyles of inmates at the workhouses (so they were instantly recognisable to the public). Matters of freedom and fashion aren’t mutually exclusive. Granted, these days lawmakers are less interested in legislating our wardrobes (cough Brexit’s keeping them busy) but that doesn’t mean fashion is any less regulated.
Now let's turn our attention to all those features headlined ‘How To Dress For A Big Bust’ or ‘How To Dress When You've Got Big Boobs’. Masked as guidelines, pumped up on expertise, this is internalized misogyny hiding in plain sight.
In one such article, Anna, a style consultant, warns the big-busted reader, 'avoid any fuss…That means no ruffles, no frills, no breast pockets and no gathers from shoulder to bust. All of these details make your chest seem enormous.' But isn't avoiding ruffles or a safari jacket just living under a cloud of sartorial manipulation?
These rules act as another obscure, indirect tactic of dictating how a woman looks. It’s a scam, a fallacy to think that pronouncing a certain silhouette as more flattering isn’t just a coded way of telling the wearer to camouflage a body part that queries the world’s beauty norms. If society says you’re not supposed to wear a belly button grazing V-neck there’s a power play happening. Smaller chested women are never dictated to in the same way larger busted ladies are. ‘I’m fairly footloose and fancy free when it comes to shopping - no hem is too short, no neckline too plunging, no tulle too billowing - and I guess you could chalk that carefree approach up to not having to navigate dressing for and around my tatas’, explains Daisy, a journalist and blogger. ‘But I’m definitely aware of the double standard that exists as far as boobs are concerned: small boobs are considered “fashion” while big boobs are considered “sexy”. It’s this disparity that I believe allows me to don nothing but a sheer tee and nipple pasties on a night out while my big-busted bezzie wouldn’t feel anywhere near as comfortable doing so.’
In reality, these fashion rules aren't making people feel better about themselves, they are judging them purely on their bra size. Underwear model Lotte has a lot to say on the matter, ‘Obviously, I think [rules are] ridiculously old-fashioned and I think Trinny and Susanna have a lot to answer for! Boobs or no boobs, you should be able to wear what shape, print or cut you want. There’s a difference between dressing for your shape with comfort in mind and following unnecessary rules'. As these 'rules', which have been passed down from generation to generation like an unwanted heirloom, stem from a masculine understanding of the female form it’s hard not to conclude that sexism is its driving force.
‘In my book, you are totally free to wear whatever you like. However, if your aim is to look your absolute best then you have to know what shape you are and what works for you. Then you can make informed decisions on which trends to buy into’, Anna says when we followed-up with her. But who is deciding this constructed shape we should all be striving for? ‘A lot of it is determined by designers, brands and retailers. They know their customers (or they should!) and produce pieces that have sold well before or that are on trend and fit their brand aesthetic. At the other end of the process are people like me, stylists who help women to understand their shape, enjoy shopping and putting together outfits’ explains Anna while in the process underlining the inherent internalised issues at play. If it’s the brands that are defining the shopping rules then it shouldn’t be overlooked that most fashion houses (across the high-street and high-end spectrum) are run and creatively directed by men.
Though designers are weighted to dictate these rules, Shakaila Forbes-Bell, a fashion psychologist, says, ‘fashion rules are no different from social norms – unwritten rules about how we think and behave and dress. We follow fashion rules because they provide a guideline for what we should and shouldn’t wear in order to fit into certain social groups, which in turn fosters healthy relationships. We also form fashion rules because the influential fashion publications who dispense these rules act as a type of authority figure. In general, humans are socialised to obey authority figures’. She uses the miniskirt as an example, which was launched as a symbol of women’s emancipation but soon, 'turned into a factor of the submission of women to a male aesthetic, which causes women to generally shy away from the garment'.
But, where does this male gaze stem from? Shakaila is convinced it’s learned behaviour at play. ‘Evolutionary psychology states that a pronounced cleavage signals high fertility levels in females which piques males interest in their quest to find "the best" mate. That’s why low-cut tops draw more attention than crop tops or booty shorts.’
Different societies and periods of history idolise different body shapes. There’s never been a conclusive definition of female beauty, but curves and by proxy big boobs have certainly be sidelined in recent years by a fashion community that has honoured skinny privilege. The sartorial gods have not made it easy for large-chested ladies - shirts pop open, long necklaces always search out that nook in your cleavage, and other hellish day-to-day experiences cross my E-Cup mind. But we are living through a progressive moment when the industry is attempting to reconfigure itself. Plus-size models like Ashley Graham and Paloma Elssesser join the ranks of the in-demand and by the very nature of their job they can’t dress only within the lines of fashion rules because, let's be honest, these rules were not made for curvy silhouettes. As Lotte points out, ‘there was a time when the whole nation was listening to Gok [Wan] but thanks to more diverse messages coming from big name brands, people seem to be more comfortable wearing what they want’.
These rules may preexist a feminist awakening. So it’s best we all just agree that any significance they are ascribed is outdated and comes from a less a-woke-n time. ‘Rules, smules!’ says Daisy, ‘I’ve never bought into the concept of fashion do’s and don’t’s. Who’s imposing these rules? Who’s regulating them? What happens when you put a Dad sneaker-clad foot wrong?!’