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The History of Toplessness

How toplessness became a bottomless controversy.
Image via Stocksy

Boobs, right? Today a sighting of them out of context is about as surprising as "Boobs, right?" at the beginning of an article: You are momentarily titillated, stirred, aback, or at least noticing, until you remind yourself not to be. "You're innocuous!" you say to the feminine nipples, looking them straight in the eye unwaveringly, regardless of whether you are sexually attracted to them or not. "You are exactly the same as men's nipples, except more functional and interesting!" Despite the assertions of many thousands of Instagram activists that the social network should allow topless photos, however, the fact is: Most of the time, you don't see women's breasts.


This has, of course, not always been so, or at least it has been different, or could be one day, we imagine. In 2015 toplessness has become one of the most fiercely argued topics in the battle of feminism vs. the world. Just last week, New York mayor Bill de Blasio released a statement announcing the city would create a taskforce to eliminate "the growing problem" of both "topless individuals and costume characters" who panhandle in Times Square. Although the mayor's press release makes it clear that part of the issue is related to the fact that these panhandlers often borderline harass people, it also makes special note that "the appropriateness of topless individuals in Times Square" is questionable.

Yesterday, topless activists rallied around the Times Square models by swarming the tourist hellhole in celebration of GoTopless Day. Today, our question is: How did we get here?

Tits as Tradition

Before clothes, the history of toplessness was the history of humanity. Makes you think! But slightly more recently, if a place was ever invaded or colonized by another, less topless culture, its chill attitudes towards bare public bosoms changed. ("Chill" here is only figurative; for obvious reasons, toplessness has prevailed in societies where the climate is hot and sweaty.) Islamic cultures saw the decline of toplessness as the religion began proliferating in the seventh century (though today tourists can sunbathe topless on private beaches in Egypt and Tunisia). Indonesian women didn't cover their breasts until Islam began to emerge there in the late 1200s. In India, toplessness was often a sign of class, depending on the region: Before Muslims entered north India in the 12th-16th centuries, only upper-class women covered their breasts; in the southwest region of Kerala, the majority ethnic group (Malayali) only allowed women of the Brahmin (priests and teachers) and Kshatriya (the ruling and military elite) castes to wear tops until 1858.

Of course, the West has also played a part in covering up the world's populations. Between the years of 1939 and 1942, Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram—the Prime Minister and essential dictator of Thailand at the time—issued a series of 12 "Cultural Mandates" to get the country "civilized." (Westernized.) (It was World War II, and he admired Hitler.) While all of the mandates are worth a read, the tenth is what concerns the hardline regulation of the culture's traditional wardrobe and, thus, us: "Thai people should not appear at public gatherings, in public places, or in city limits without being appropriately dressed. Inappropriate dress includes wearing only underpants, wearing no shirt, or wearing a wraparound cloth."


If a nipple picture is taken in a forest and there's no WiFi to share it with your followers, does anyone really care?

In 2004, police in the Australian town of Alice Springs (population: about 25,000; accessibility: it's almost 1000 miles to the nearest city) outraged Aboriginal elders when officers told a group of women they had to stop dancing topless in a public park. An Aboriginal representative body in Australia responded with a request for an apology. According to Kunmanar Breaden, the chairman of the Aboriginal body, the Central Land Council, the topless dancing was "part of [Aboriginal] culture and thousands and thousands of people around the world have seen Aboriginal ladies dancing without their tops on television, theatres and many public occasions."

In Europe and America, the trajectory is a little less A-to-B. The Enlightenment was when toplessness started becoming taboo; until around the year 1700, toplessness was quite a bit more common than it is today, ankles and legs being more risqué at the time. Although royal nipples were rarely depicted in paintings, court ladies were sometimes painted with one breast exposed—showing both breasts in a painting probably meant you were a "mistress"—and many women (including Queen Mary II of William and Mary University) walked around with one or both breasts out of their bodices. Dressing tables, too, stayed stocked with nipple makeup, in an orange-red carnelian shade.


The Victorian era saw a dip into what we imagine as the Victorian era: stupid costumes of many layers. Profoundly affected by her mother's strong dedication to sexual decorum, Queen Victoria eliminated customs that suggested sex stuff during her reign from 1837 to 1901. Toplessness was but one casualty.

From there, we are still recovering, and defining how we want to recover. According to the toplessness activist site, male toplessness was only legalized in America in 1936. The first topless scene in film was two years prior, starring Clark Gable's chest in It Happened One Night. That same year, eight men ventured to Coney Island without their tops and were served with $1 fines from a female magistrate, on the grounds that "there are many people who object to seeing so much of your body exposed."

The Nipple Pasty Is Political

Public toplessness became a feminist act long before the Janet Jackson nip-slip highlighted the particular sexist double standard that permits men to walk around shirtless as women sweat out the summer in underwire and unnatural fibers. We could ask, "Why did Justin Timberlake's career flourish while Jackson was disgraced?" after he accidentally revealed her breast during the 2004 Superbowl half-time show, but we already know the answer. While some groups—like the Mayali in India—have considered it a privilege to wear tops, Western intellectual culture has seemed to be moving towards widespread toplessness as a feminist victory since the Rochester Topfree Seven were arrested for going topless in a park in 1986, and for good reason.

Like much modern toplessness, the first topless bikini was a protest against sexist understandings of "decency" (or "appropriateness"). The New York-based Austrian designer Rudi Geinrich introduced the first topless bikini—the "monokini," a term since bastardized—on the model Peggy Moffitt in June of 1964. The suit was not allowed in public in the United States. However, when the stripper Carol Doda wore it to the Condor nightclub in San Francisco two weeks after its debut, it sparked a trend of topless go-go dancing that would later turn into the strip clubs we know today.


The laws prohibiting or regulating toplessness are stupidly inconsistent throughout America. The hot and annoying summer has long been cause for contemplation of a life without clothing, particularly in the Big "Garbage" Apple, where it is especially hot and annoying and there exists a long tradition of writing May-August articles titled, basically, "Yes, It's Legal to Go Topless in New York," each beginning with a discussion of how hot and annoying it is in the Big Apple. During the hot and annoying summer of 1992, six years after the Rochester Seven were arrested for being topless in public, their case made it to the New York Supreme Court, which ruled that toplessness should be legalized in the state. A fun footnote to the case reads, "Interestingly, expert testimony at appellants' trial suggested that the enforced concealment of women's breasts reinforces cultural obsession with them, contributes toward unhealthy attitudes about breasts by both sexes and even discourages women from breastfeeding their children." See also: FEMEN.

There are many people who object to seeing so much of your body exposed.

While there have been several cases of police stopping or wrongfully arresting topless women in New York (and, last month, in Canada, where toplessness is legal) since the 1992 ruling, it's technically OK to do things like conduct a topless book club in Central Park. (Though following the Times Square crackdown on tip-hungry models wearing only underwear and body paint, New York state senator Ruben Diaz proposed legislation that would make it illegal for both men and women to go topless in public, everywhere except the beach.)


Elsewhere in the US, it's only completely, 100% illegal to show a female breast in Utah, Indiana, and Tennessee; 14 other states have weird, ambiguous laws on the subject. Nevertheless, a police officer may still arrest a topless woman for "disorderly conduct." If this happens to you, advises you sue.

Now, advocates for women's right to toplessness are the daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore and deeply concerned about Instagram, where showing a female nipple is prohibited. Opponents of Instagram's policy cite its sexist and arbitrary nature and fight it with a hashtag campaign—#freethenipple—and funny emojis re-appropriated as post-internet pasties. They're right, of course, but the fact that one of our generation's fieriest feminist protest movements is motivated by a combination of tech-y capitalism and the desire to be admired is, frankly, embarrassing. If a nipple picture is taken in a forest and there's no WiFi to share it with your followers, does anyone really care?

It's rarely pointed out that toplessness has serious drawbacks—sunburn if you're susceptible, weighty pain and discomfort if you're large-breasted, leering and harassment if you're around men unenlightened by the tenets of feminism. It's because of that last one that so many are up in bra straps about women's right to be as topless as men: We should be striving towards a society in which a woman could go topless, if she wanted, without fear of wrongful arrest or sexual assault. To point out practical concerns like sun damage might give the other side ideas.


They Do It In Europe (and Australia)

When the Venice Beach neighborhood of Los Angeles moved to make the area exempt from the city's ban on topless sunbathing earlier this year, local council advocates justified the proposal by calling it a "serious equality issue" and invoking the district's Italian namesake: The first point on the proposal reads, "Whereas Venice Beach was founded and designed around the European culture of Venice, Italy." (The last time the setting of Billboard Dad was dotted with feminine nipples was in 1974, when a nudist colony made its home on the beach and scandalized the local community, attracting cameras and spurring LA to ban nudity full stop.)

The Venice issue is tied to the beach, which is the most likely setting for toplessness, particularly when you're thinking in stereotypes of European coastlines. But some say topless sunbathing is actually waning in popularity. In Europe and in Australia, where toplessness has been common for decades if not longer, there are now far fewer boobs to be seen.

It's not as if misogynistic objectifiers of women often turn down free nipples.

Why? While an Elle France poll from last year attributed the decline of topless sunbathing to increased awareness of skin cancer, a Guardian follow-up suggested women were hesitant to disrobe because the proliferation of sexualized imagery of women makes the idea of sunbathing topless both unappealing ("'pop-porn culture'" has skeezed up the practice) and threatening (someone could post a naked picture of you online). (This highlights a problem with the #freethenipple movement: It's not as if misogynistic objectifiers of women often turn down free nipples.) Down under, where Sydney's Bondi Beach was once a sea of areolae (a trend initially inspired by a youthful fuck-authority counterculture movement in the 1980s), topless sunbathing is similarly considered uninteresting and/or risky.

What's the Point?

A 1994 study in the Journal of Sex Research titled "Psychosocial aspects of female topless behavior on Australian beaches" tried to figure out why some women are willing to go topless in such a misogynistic culture. Female psychology students filled out surveys about their past topless behavior and sexual attitudes. The results were very duh?

Those who had ever gone topless were less likely to believe that going topless was sexual, had more permissive sexual attitudes, attended church less often, had a more favourable attitude to going topless, believed that the community approved of topless behaviour, believed that significant others were approving of topless behavior, and had higher self‐esteem and higher body image. In two stepwise regression models, the sexual attitudes of the women were the best predictor of topless behavior.

Breasts Are Beautiful (in Paintings)

While toplessness remains contentious in broader society, we can rest assured that our best museums will always offer women a space to bare it all (or half). In art, there are: drawings of topless women; paintings of topless women; photographs of topless women; photographs of topless standing women; black and white photographs of topless women; black and white photographs of ethnographic topless women; black and white photographs of topless women in Africa; photographs of topless women with black background; sepia photographs of topless women; topless women in art by posture (topless dancing women in art; topless kneeling women in art; topless recumbent women in art; topless sitting women in art (paintings of topless sitting women); topless standing women in art (drawings of topless standing women)); topless women with red hair in art; topless women in bed in art; and topless women in photos of paintings and sculptures on Instagram.