Fashion Moments – Pigeon Breast

Fashion Moments by Deborah SweeneyWelcome to my weekly fashion blog post. Each week I will discuss a female garment, fashion trend or influencer from the age of photography (1840s through the 20th century). My goal is to educate family researchers and genealogists about the clothing worn by our ancestors. Dating photographs is an issue we all struggle with as family archivists. Additionally, anyone who writes about their family’s history should be aware of the environment in which their ancestors lived. Period clothing is an important part of that environment from how it affects a person’s movement to their overall lifestyle. This week I introduce you to the “pigeon breast” bodice.

Bodice and Shirtwaist Styles

At the end of the 1890s (about 1897-9), the shape of the female bodice began to change. Tops became fuller in front, predominantly at the waistline. Gathering or pleating typically controlled the excess of fabric, and kept this fullness to the front.  The shape is often compared to a pigeon’s breast which is typically thrust forward (hence the name). Another term which is used synonymously with “pigeon breast” is the monobosom. The overall silhouette of the period resembles the letter “S” as the breast is pushed forward and the posterior is forced back. Newer corset styles enforced this shape. Fashion magazines of the time generally exaggerated this “S” curve. Belts or sashes were a common accessory.  By 1905, the style was beginning to fade, and was gone by 1910.

[The “pigeon breast” should not be confused with the gathered bodices of the end the 1900s and the 1910s. As the decade advanced, waistlines rose higher than the natural waist while the “pigeon breast” remained at the natural waist and ofttimes dipped lower in front.]

Further Reading

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s website contains several pages covering the History of Fashion. A brief summary is given for both male and female clothing, arranged by decade.

The Vintage Fashion Guild publishes a fashion timeline on their website, beginning in 1800 and ending at 1990. Fashions are broken down by decade.

Fashion and textile historian, Leimomi Oakes, from Wellington, New Zealand, writes about and critics vintage clothing found in museums around the world. Her website has an online Historical Fashion and Textile Encyclopedia. Currently, the page is a work in progress, and mainly focuses on different types of fabric/textiles.

The Vintage Victorian website has an article by Catherine Bishop, focusing on ladies’ evening dress from 1899-1905.


Pink afternoon dress by Jacques Doucet, French, c1903. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession no. 2009.300.1153a, b

Blue afternoon dress by M. Davey & Company, American, c1898-1900. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession no. 2009.300.907a, b

Fashion plates from the Thomas J. Watson Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Costume Institute Fashion Plates: Women 1900-1914, Plates no. 68, 75, 77

©2015 Deborah Sweeney
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4 thoughts on “Fashion Moments – Pigeon Breast

  1. davidmadison1942

    “Newer corset styles enforced this shape.” Oy, doesn’t sound very comfortable! When did corsets disappear altogether?

    “writes about and critics vintage clothing” should read “critiques”

    1. Genealogy Lady Post author

      Between 1910-1920, the corset was phased out. Of course older women still wore corsets into the 1920s…think the Dowager on Downton Abbey. It’s now 1925 and I would suspect she is still corseted.

  2. Amy

    It’s amazing to me how fashion changed (and still changes) so dramatically and so quickly. Thanks again for these posts. I find them fascinating and helpful!

    1. Genealogy Lady Post author

      Thank you! It has been fun trying to figure out what I should post about each week, and getting to pull books off the shelf that I haven’t looked at in a while.


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