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While trying to understand when and why the term cleavage was first used to refer to a woman neckline I’ve found that:

The sense of "cleft between a woman's breasts in low-cut clothing" is first recorded 1946, defined in a "Time" magazine article [Aug. 5] as the "Johnston Office trade term for the shadowed depression dividing an actress' bosom into two distinct sections;"

But they also say that:

traditionally first used in this sense by U.S. publicist Joseph I. Breen (1888-1965), head of the Production Code Administration (replaced 1945 by Eric Johnston), enforcers of Hollywood self-censorship, in reference to Jane Russell's costumes and poses in "The Outlaw." (Etymonline)

The story about J.I.Breen is reported also in History of cleavage

In the 1940s, Joseph Breen, head of the U.S. Production Code Administration (PCA), applied the term to breasts in reference to actor Jane Russell's costumes and poses in the 1941 movie The Outlaw.

So apparently the term was not first used in 1946 by magazine Time, but in the early 40s given that the movie was released two years later, in 1943, because of PCA censorship.

I could not find evidence that the term was actually used in those years. Was it actually cooked up the the imaginative mind of a censor? Is there evidence of its earliest usage?

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Yes, the 1946 Time article itself claims that the PCA used cleavage as its own trade term. However, I have since found evidence of usage as early as 1935. What follows is first the explanation consistent with Etymonline and then the new evidence.

The Word First Appeared in Publication in 1946

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first usage of "cleavage, n." as the cleft between a woman's breasts in 1946, referring to the same Time article:

1946 Time 5 Aug. 98 Low-cut Restoration costumes..display too much ‘cleavage’ (Johnston Office trade term for the shadowed depression dividing an actress' bosom into two distinct sections).

I tracked down the full text in an academic database, EBSCOhost. The full title of the article is "Cleavage & the Code." The intro to the article mentions Joseph Breen by name (as Joe Breen) as someone working in the "Johnston Office" to explain American film codes to British audiences:

Which is more sexy—an actress' half-covered bosom or her uncovered legs?

British moviemakers, puzzled by U.S. cinemorality, want a serious answer to this question. For the past fortnight, the man who knows all anyone needs to know about U.S. censorship has been in London trying to explain it in simple English. It is a tough job—even for the Johnston Office's jowly, jolly Joe Breen. No. 1 U.S. "interpreter" of the Hollywood morality Code.

The film being described in the OED quote is Wicked Lady (Wikipedia link). Here is that quote in full:

Wicked Lady, a 1945 picture starring Margaret Lockwood, James Mason and Patricia Roc, was a big moneymaker in England. But the U.S. will have to wait to see it. Low-cut Restoration costumes worn by the Misses Lockwood and Roc (see cut) display too much "cleavage" (Johnston Office trade term for the shadowed depression dividing an actress' bosom into two distinct sections). The British, who have always considered bare legs more sexy than half-bare breasts, are resentfully reshooting several costly scenes.

So it's the 1946 article itself that claims cleavage is a "Johnston Office trade term," that is, that the term was very likely invented by the PCA to refer to an indecent showing of the breasts in what then functioned as a euphemism.

However, I can find no direct reference to The Outlaw, even though the film was infamous for riling up the PCA about bosoms. All the sources I'm finding point back to the 1946 article or gesture generally to The Outlaw. For example, this excerpt from Thomas Doherty's book Hollywood’s Censor : Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (2007, p. 254) summarizes the earlier affair without any actual evidence of the usage of cleavage at the time:

When Breen and his staff sat down to review The Outlaw and beheld Jane Russell—bouncing on horseback, strutting in clinging blouses, and leaning over in plunging necklines to spill out the upper portions of her 38D–25–36 figure—the vista inspired the most goggle-eyed of all Breen outbursts over mammary excess. “In my more than ten years of critical examination of motion pictures, I have never seen anything quite so unacceptable as the shots of the breasts of the character of Rio [Russell],” he sputtered. “Throughout almost half the picture the girl’s breasts, which are quite large and prominent, are shockingly emphasized, and, in almost every instance are very substantially uncovered.” Without cuts—or more covering—the Breen Office absolutely refused to grant The Outlaw lawful passage.

Prior Evidence of Cleavage in the PCA in 1935

There is textual evidence of the PCA / MPPDA using the word as early as 1935. In a December 31, 1935 letter from foreign representative Frederick Herron to Joseph Breen (in Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections), Herron speculates on the strategy for appearing consistent to Londoners in applying censorship policy to Captain Blood:

I saw "Captain Blood" the other day and in the scene in Blood's cabin where the girl [Olivia de Havilland] is talking to him [Errol Flynn], she has her dress pulled down in front until the cleavage is just about that in Nell Gwyn. The same dress in other shots is perfectly all right.

What I am afraid of is that when this picture is shown in England and this low neck is shown that the newspapers will again take up the Nell Gwyn cleavage campaign. Some one in the studio must have deliberately done this because it is the only scene where there could be any criticism at all.

Herron suggests letting the depiction of cleavage go through untouched to avoid a big scene. The "Nell Gwyn cleavage campaign" is reference to an earlier rough reception for the 1934 film Nell Gwynn (see this Vanity Fair excerpt alluding to the censorship). In any case, the letter illustrates much earlier in-house use than Etymonline supposed.

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    The word "cleavage" itself was used long before 1946 in geology to refer to the cleavage of rocks. See for example books.google.co.uk/… But the restricted usage here is clearly implied and the answer is well researched and informative.
    – Anton
    Jan 4, 2023 at 21:43
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    @Anton Not just implied, specifically stated: "used to refer to a woman neckline".
    – Barmar
    Jan 5, 2023 at 16:03
  • @Anton: For the geological usage, the earliest attestations in the OED are from 1816.
    – Schmuddi
    Jan 6, 2023 at 17:05
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Searches of the Google Books and Elephind (newspaper) databases yields more than a dozen matches for cleavage (in the revealing physique sense) from the year 1946, a couple of which date directly or indirectly to August 4, 1946—one day earlier than the August 5 Time magazine article cited in the posted question and in TaliesinMerlin's excellent answer.

Here is the full text of "'Wicked Lady' Too Wicked: Scenes Reshot for America," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Truth (August 4, 1946):

NEW YORK, Saturday.—British producers are resentfully reshooting several costly scenes of 'The Wicked Lady' because Hollywood's self-imposed censorship considers actresses' half-covered bosoms far more sexy than yards of uncovered legs.

'The Wicked Lady', is only one of three films which will have to be altered to meet the Johnson Office morality code.

It is a very interesting example of the length to which the American film industry goes to keep half-baked censors like the unofficial League of Decency out of its hair.

'The Wicked Lady' is a film of the Restoration period, and beauteous Margaret Lockwood and Patricia Roc wear low-cut, half-bosom-exposing costumes which, according to Joe Breen, United States interpreter of the Hollywood morality code, now in London, 'expose too much cleavage.'

'Cleavage' is Hollywood's own delicate term for the shadowed depression dividing an actress's bosom.

English-produced 'The Rake's Progress' will have its title changed to 'The Notorious Gentleman' before American distributors show it.

Mr. Breen fears that the American public would think from the title that it was a documentary film on gardening.

And from a brief item in Newsweek (August [?] 1946) [combined snippets]:

Amazed: Prof. Cyril E. M. Joad, of London University and author of "A Guide to Modern Wickedness," denounced the censoring of motion pictures in the United States and said he was amazed at American insistence upon banning the "cleavage . . . the top end of the little ravine that runs down between and separates women's breasts. In an article in The London Sunday Dispatch on Aug. 4, he also complained that American films bar the words "damn" and "bastard," and asked: "Does nobody in America ever swear and are there no illegitimate children?"

Since Newsweek claims to be quoting comments by Professor Joad that were first reported in an article published in the London Sunday Dispatch of August 4, 1946, the latter source would seem to have a nominal one-day advantage over the August 5, 1946, issue Time magazine—but as Sydney is several time zones ahead of London, the Truth may have an even stronger claim to having the earliest published occurrence of the term in the relevant sense.

From Earl Wilson's column in the Los Angeles [California] Daily News (August 13, 1946):

Look! There's Diana Lynn, beautiful young Paramount actress, wearing a low-cut white dress that shows much cleavage.

"Diana, why are you so un-dressed-up tonight?" I ask her.

Earl Wilson was a smart-alecky, gossipy, night-life journalist who wrote a nationally syndicated column for decades, operating out of New York City and based at the New York Post. I remember that he was still going strong (and his column was still appearing regularly in my hometown newspaper, the Houston Post) in the late 1970s.

From Mary Armitage, "Liaison Lack on Movie Morality," in the [Adelaide, South Australia] Mail (August 31, 1946):

Forty scenes of Gainsborough's "Wicked Lady" have been reshot at a cost of L5,000, and a great number of man-hours, because America's production code censor, Joseph I. Breen, decided that Margaret Lockwood's period gowns were too low-cut to be seen by American audiences.

This is not the first time that a British movie has been rejected by America through "chest trouble," or what film people call "cleavage." The same thing happened over the release of the British-made "Scarlet Pimpernel." American production code officials then considered Merle Oberon's eighteenth century gowns were too revealing for twentieth century American audiences.

From "Here She's Wicked; Here She Isn't" in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Daily Telegraph (September 15, 1946):

U.S. film censors were upset by the "cleavage" in the low-bosomed gowns, of Margaret Lockwood in the British film, The Wicked Lady (left), and of the supporting actress, Patricia Roc.

They demanded the re-shooting of 40 close-ups before passing the film for the American public.

From "Josephine O'Neill's Reviews," in the same issue of [Sydney, New South Wales] Daily Telegraph

A more dashing leading man than Russell Wade could have made this fleeting frivol [The Bamboo Blonde] more fun. But Russell is a Sad Sack of a hero; and Miss [Frances] Langford, in spite of that blonde hair, and those cleavage gowns, is oddly prim.

From Earl Wilson's column in the Los Angeles [California] Daily News (September 27, 1946):

Ginger Rogers shows excess "cleavage" In "Magnificent Doll" and the Johnston office insists on covering her ...

From "'Breast Line' War Is Now On: British-U.S. Battle Front,"in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Sun (October 20, 1946):

Another British film held up here [in Hollywood] by censorship trouble is "Pink String and Sealing Wax."

Breen's office is objecting to the "cleavage" shown by Googie Withers' evening gowns.

From "Royalty Censored a Wedding Gown," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Daily Telegraph (October 27, 1946):

A "cleavage" had become a matter of concern to the Ladies of the Royal Household.

At Buckingham Palace, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and the two Princesses held strong opinions about the propriety of the wedding gown chosen by their cousin, 22-year-old Patricia Edwina Victoria Mountbatten.

This week she was marrying 21-year-old John Ulick Knatchbull, seventh Baron Brabourne.

It was a beautiful gown of beaten gold Indian brocade. It had been designed in Paris by the famous couturier Captain Edward Molyneux. So had the blue bridesmaids' frocks.

That was the trouble. They were all "too, too Parisian" for the Regal taste, too daringly cut, and exposed rather too much bosom.

On the dresses at they stood, a Royal veto was placed. Like the costumes in the movie, "Wicked Lady," they had to be remade.

From "Movie Censorship: It Confuses British Movie Makers but U.S. Producers Get Around It," in Life magazine (October 28, 1946):

The thing that annoys British film-makers most about the [U.S.] Production Code is the highly legalistic way it works, especially regarding sex. To remove any symptom of sex from the traditional symbol of a happy marriage, a double bed is never shown on the screen except with only one person in it. "Indecent exposure" is prohibited, but any bathing suit passes so long as it has a high bodice. "Cleavage" is banned, but a tight sweater is permissible (see top picture, opposite [of Diana Lynn in The Bride Wore Boots]). Brutality and drunkenness are prohibited except "when essential to the plot." Very often producers insist that such things are essential. ...

...

[Caption:] Cleavage between women's breasts forced revision of forthcoming British historical movie The Wicked Lady, starring Patricia Roc (above). For U.S., distributors had to substitute close-up shots for revealing ones like this.

From "US Censors Were Snubbed," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Daily Telegraph (November 10, 1946):

LONDON, Sat.—British censors gave a subtle snub to their US fellows this week.

That Howard Hughes-Jane Russell film, The Outlaw, came up for review.

American censors banned the film for over three years, passed it, and then clamped down the ban again.

Reason: The "cleavage" in the bosomy shots of the heroine, Jane Russell.

The British film censors saw The Outlaw, and, after asking for one tiny cut, passed it for General Exhibition.

From Earl Wilson's column in the Los Angeles [California] Daily News (November 23, 1946):

NEW YORK.—Paulette Godard now wears a frog in her bust.

I guess I'd better clarify that.

When Ingrid Bergman was upsetting Broadway at the opening of the stage show "Joan of Lorraine"—which dumb showgirl Taffy Tuttle calls "Joan of Fontaine"—there sat practical Paulette wearing this wee gold frog hanging down in what the English would call her "cleavage."

"Look!" said Paulette to me, superfluously.

From an unidentified item in Negro Digest (1946) [combined snippets]:

. . . Nudist magazine, Sunshine & Health, court-testing Post Office department's ban on nude white breasts but okay of nude Negro breasts. Which reminds of longstanding N. Y. state film censorship rule which allows movies to expose Negro women's breasts full view but turns thumbs down on just a wee too much cleavage on white girls . . .

From Gordon Gilmour, "London Diary: Ernest Bevin May Be on His Way Out," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Sun (December 4, 1946):

Critics argue that to spend £17,000.000 a year on films like the currently-showing, much-panned "The Outlaw" is throwing money down the sink—an action which not even Jane Russell's ample "cleavage" can justify.

And from a caption accompanying "London Letter: A Night at Picadilly's Beau Geste Club," in the [Hobart, Tasmania] Mercury (December 17, 1946):

New Cleavage Necklines: These two pastel-shaded afternoon frocks by Frederick Starke show you the cleavage necklines and elaborately draped bodices that are the very newest things in London. The one on the left is in pink, and a further feature to note is the heart-shaped bodice. The frock on the right is in dove grey.


Conclusions

The use of cleavage to refer to a certain kind of physiological negative space seems to have arisen in the U.S. movie industry in connection with the Motion Picture Production Code of 1934 and its latter-day enforcers.

The earliest cited mentions of cleavage in this sense seems to have come from three different periodicals on three different continents within a day of each other: an article in a Sydney newspaper on August 4, 1946; an article in a London newspaper on the same day; and an article in a U.S. news weekly dated August 5, 1946. (Note that the third instance may actually have come out earliest, depending on whether Time magazine was already engaged in the misleading practice of dating its periodicals by their sell-by date—the date when they get pulled from newsstands—rather than their actual first day on sale.)

All three articles focus on the fallout from a decision by U.S. censors to ban a British film (The Wicked Lady) for exposing too much of the actresses' skin, leading the studio to reshoot numerous close-ups—at considerable additional expense—after making wardrobe adjustments to placate the censors. Given that Joe Breen of the U.S. Production Code Administration had, according to the August 5 Time magazine account, been in London "for the past fortnight" making his case for banning the film, British newspapers may have been exposed to (and reported on) the term cleavage as early as late July 1946.

In this regard it is noteworthy that, whereas the August 5 U.S. and August 4 Australian articles referring to cleavage focus on Joe Breen, the August 4 London article quotes to it in an interview with Professor Cyril Joad, whose familiarity with the term may well have resulted from his having encountered it in an earlier article in the British press. If I had an subscription to the British Newspaper Archive, I would check its collection from July and early August 1946 for possible earlier mentions of cleavage—but I don't.

All three of the August 4 and 5 articles noted above treat the term cleavage as contemporaneous jargon among U.S. film industry executives and censors—but I haven't found any evidence that the term had appeared in the press or in published books prior to August 4, 1946. Mention of cleavage in the relevant sense in a private letter that one U.S. Production Code executive sent to another in 1935 (as cited by TaliesinMerlin) offers persuasive evidence that the expression was in use within the film industry more than a decade earlier, but there is no reason to suppose that it had escaped that narrow zone of use before Breen's visit to London in the summer of 1946.

Although the initial flurry of articles about the Wicked Lady kerfuffle undoubtedly played a major role in propagating the term, other sources subsequently helped spread it beyond the context of film industry censorship. In the United States, one such source was the widely read syndicated columnist and bon vivant Earl Wilson, who used the term three times in columns published in the second half of 1946. Curiously, in the last of those three columns, Wilson presents cleavage as a British English term, presumably because he picked up on it (as so many others did) in the wake of the Wicked Lady controversy.

That British English speakers were, from a fairly early date, familiar with the term outside the context of film industry usage is evident from the commercial appearance of garments with "cleavage necklines" in England in late 1946—a fashion development that an Australian newspaper characterizes as "the very newest things in London."

In Australia, early mentions of cleavage in the relevant sense are peculiarly concentrated in Sydney newspapers, with instances unrelated to the film industry appearing as early as October 1946.

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