RSS Feed

The Past 100 Years of Women’s Fashion: Unfashionably Messing Up Breastfeeding Rates

Posted on
Easy access...

This, my friends, is easy access…

Breastfeeding rates in first world western countries (namely the USA) plummeted during the 1950s and 1960s and has been slowly on the rise since then. Breastfeeding rates were already on decline from around the turn of the century, (which was around the same time that formula became readily available to the general public). Since the beginning of time, there have been woman who haven’t been able to breastfeed, and it’s really a blessing that we now have formula as a back up. But we’re talking, like, a HUGE and unprecedented decline in breastfeeding rates that happened rather quickly and for a variety of reasons. Could fashion have been one of the reasons why?

My breastfeeding ‘career‘ is pushing four consecutive years and my wardrobe consists mostly of stretchy low-ish neck t-shirts. Anything with easy access is the go, especially when I’ve had a very small baby around. In historical terms, when I think of the ‘easy access-to-boob‘ factor, I either think of indigenous woman in warm countries, with their bosoms a-flapping in the breeze, or I imagine those awesomely naughty French woman of the 1600 and 1700s, who wore extremely low cut bodices with their nipples practically popping out. The French were onto something…

Over time, the necklines went higher and clothing got tighter around the boobs. You have to keep in mind, up until the 1980’s people didn’t really have good stretch fabric. On their tops, it was buttons, zippers and ties). I have to say, it wasn’t easy finding copyright free photos that showed EXACTLY the breastfeeding un-friendly style I was trying to portray of that era. But, you can get the idea. There certainly were maternity and nursing friendly tops available back then, but they were not as easy to get ahold of or as cheap as they are today. Take a look and decide for yourself… were clothes of the last century breastfeeding friendly, or not?

Ahoy! No luck in this piece if you wanted to haul out the old girls and feed a baby…


Please define ‘easy’ access to boobs… Probably do-able… maybe? 


I’m not saying boobing would be impossible in that top, but it sure wouldn’t be easy!


Wriggle a boob out of that dress? I would have to say, no way.


Introducing… The Boob Chastity Belt. You would have to take half of the dress off. The 1950s saw some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in history…


Maybe if you stuck the baby UP your dress?


Possibly, the baby could fit through the sleeve?


1980’s, 1990’s, 2000’s and Today
I’m lumping the past 30 odd years together, 1) because finding an uncopyrighted photo that was taken so recently was hard as and 2) because stretch material became popular in the 80’s, which made it hugely more easy to pull any ordinary t-shirt down or up and feed. Although, I do remember my mother complaining about having to do up and undo millions of buttons when she was nursing me, in 1982 and 1983. Breastfeeding rates started gaining momentum in the 80s, probably due to better education surrounding  breastfeeding and better maternity laws (although, come on USA, get with the program with your maternity laws!). The clothing is so much better these days. You can walk into any department store and buy a decent nursing bra or shirt for something like $20 (that’s in Australia).

Can you say, "Thank you stretchy material and easy access shirts and bras!"

Can you say, “Thank you stretchy material and easy access shirts and bras!”

Women’s breastfeeding rates have come a long way (both up and down) over the past hundred years. There are lots of reasons why the rates have been on a roller coaster, but at least now women don’t have to worry about finding suitable breastfeeding clothing! One less obstacle for breastfeeding women is a good thing! So we can all say, “when in doubt, whip ’em out (more easily).”

Find Katesurfs on Facebook


3 Responses »

  1. Fantastic connection, thank you! I can’t help wonder about the 2 world wars and their effects on breastfeeding. We know the wars affected fashion, but with many women having to take on new roles as the men went to war, perhaps formula was used when mothers had to leave their baby with another woman. Then there would be a baby boom after the wars by which time formula was already established. Just a thought..

    • Ah, interesting! A lady posted a comment today stating that it wasn’t fashion that effected breastfeeding rates, she said that breastfeeding rates were already on the decline, so the fashion industry didn’t have to accommodate breastfeeding friendly clothes anymore!

  2. The basic problem with this idea is that until the 1970’s when breastfeeding was actually back on the rise thanks to what some people call the hippie movement, breastfeeding was something you were supposed to do in your house, you never did it in public, and you certainly weren’t having your picture taken while doing it because in American society pulling your boob out in public for any reason has been considered indecent and risque for pretty much the entire history of this country since Europeans took over. I know that the women of the 1840’s, 50’s, and 60’s had less of a likelihood to be able to breast feed while wearing a chemise, a corset and a bodice with more buttons than a button factory on it than any of the women in these pictures, but they didn’t have the choice of formula. Since that was only how they dressed in public though, it had nothing to do with breastfeeding. Of course back then a woman stayed home pretty much for the first six months (basically until they didn’t have to breastfeed all the time and could stick a piece of food in a kid’s mouth until they got home). Fashion has been boob restricting for far longer than the 1900’s and frankly I think the drop in breastfeeding has more to do with women having to go to work because of the war and then later thinking that they could “have it all” by going to work and being a mother which inevitably meant employers who didn’t want to not have a worker that took 6-8 months off so they could breast feed their babies and insisting that women come back to work right away or lose their jobs (it’s gotten much better since the beginning especially with the introduction of the breast pump). Not to mention in the 50’s doctors were telling women that their breast milk wasn’t good enough and that the formula was better.

    The whole idea that fashion would affect breast feeding would mean that breast feeding in public wasn’t something you wouldn’t be caught dead doing.up until recently, which isn’t true. It’s only been recently that the idea of exposing yourself in public for breast feeding is something women have a right to do without being embarrassed or shunned, at least in this country.


Share Your Thoughts