There is very little in human history quite as capricious and changeable as fashion. While ample cleavage is something to be proud of today, and a huge industry thrives on catering to that, less was more in the 1920s, and a no less thriving industry offered women various devices to achieve that effect.
The ideal female image of the 1920s was the tall, angular, gazelle-like creature whose dress hung on a uniformity of frame that almost no woman could really achieve. To help, however, the fashion industry of the time produced various constricting ‘brassiere and bandeau’ to help tame an unruly cleavage.
This follows a long tradition of body modification in pursuit of beauty that is, of course, alive and well today. In Europe and America, the process pf disciplining an amble bust line was relatively benign, but in many other parts of the world, in west and equatorial Africa for example, was, and still is considerably more punishing.
Like female genital mutilation, ‘breast ironing’ and ‘breast binding’ are practices steeped in history and tradition, with no real value attached to them, but nonetheless defended robustly by the practicing society, and ironically, almost always by women.
The practice, known as breast ironing, survives today mostly in West Africa, and specifically in Cameroon. The process involves the use of heated objects, like stones, metal plates and heated shingle of wood to press and massage the breasts of pubescent girls, in an effort to inhibit the growth of their breast. Obviously this in an anachronistic practice, long proved to have no benefits at all, and in fact proven to lead to long-term health issues in the future. When asked why they persist in this practice, most mothers struggle to offer a coherent answer. Certainly it is not a process of beautification, because mutilated breast are not that attractive, and so one can only conclude that it is just the blind adherence to tradition.
Women’s rights activists both in West Africa and in Europe, where these practices have been transported with mass immigration, are actively working to discredit the practice. However, as is the case of female genital mutilation, sometimes these bizarre traditions, conceived centuries in the past, retain their cultural significance, and are kept alive simply for that reason.