Isabella of Bavaria, Queen of France, loved a plunging neckline. In fact, she loved them so much that she invented "garments of the grand neckline," which dragged her neckline all the way down to her navel. The fashion statement complimented her jewelry; she had pierced her rouged "little apples of paradise" (her 14th-century euphemism for nipples) with diamonds connected by chains of pearls and gold, which she sometimes even decorated with tiny nip caps.
Often credited as the first woman to have worn nipple piercings, Isabella may have instigated the trend's popularity among wealthy women in the late 14th and early 15th century, but her adorned apples can't explain why it became "almost expected that women would have their nipples pierced" in some Western European cities in the 1890s, and why today roughly nine percent of women have theirs done. Unlike ear or clit piercings, the modification hasn't held a sustained high or low popularity, but has instead ebbed and flowed through the ages.
Read more: The History of the Clit Piercing
While Isabella may have started a nipple piercing trend, she wasn't the first to realize her breasts were worthy of decor. According to The Naked Woman: A Study of the Female Body, women used to be more apt to accessorize their nipples in ways that wouldn't interfere with breastfeeding. "Three thousands years ago, in ancient Egypt, high-status women enjoyed covering their nipples lavishly with gold paint," zoologist Desmond Morris writes. "In ancient Rome, 2,000 years ago, the preference was to decorate nipples with rouge, to spice up erotic encounters."
In fact, pierced nipples started out as an accomplished man's body-mod-of-choice, worn proudly to symbolize masculinity. Julius Caesar was said to have had one of his nipples pierced, as the accessory was a sign of strength in ancient Rome; and sailors would celebrate crossing a significant longitude or latitude with a single ring, according to Margo DeMello's Encyclopedia of Body Adornment. But while masculinity has hung on, this ritualistic trend has for the most part died, with Texas's Karankawa Native Americans boring cane into their nipples up until their extinction in the late 19th century, according to the Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume.
By the late 19th century, though, women were just getting started with putting holes in their nipples. In major Western European metropolises like London and Paris, the piercing was having a definite moment, and for a variety of reasons—the main being that it walked the line between fashionable and kinky. Many studies on the topic reference a magazine article, published in the 1890s in Victorian England, about people getting their nipples pierced, and connecting those nipples with chains, including The Golden Age of Erotica and The Book of Kink: Sex Beyond the Missionary.
"In the late 1890s the 'bosom ring' came into fashion briefly and sold in expensive Parisian jewelry shops," writes Steven Kern in Anatomy and Destiny: A Cultural History of The Human Body. "These 'anneaux de sein' were inserted through the nipple, and some women wore one on either side linked with a delicate chain. The rings enlarged the breasts and kept them in a state of constant excitation."
These body-modifications weren't necessarily well received by the rest of society, according to Kern. "The medical community was outraged by these cosmetic procedures, for they represented a rejection of traditional conceptions of the purpose of a woman's body." What were previously just teats for infants to suck, nipples with piercings became a sign of rebellion and source of pleasure. This, in turn, also made them an expression of privilege, as wealthy white women could often be called "rebellious" without severe punishment.
It's difficult to believe every source about the "fad," Charles LaFave writes on BME: Body Modification Ezine, as it can be assumed that some accounts about its popularity are exaggerated, but after finding evidence in magazines from the time period, he comes to the conclusion that the accounts are, for the most part, grounded in fact. Selma Kadi, a German student at the University of Vienna in 2007, also tasked herself with digging up the truth in John Bull beim Erziehen, which further corroborated the stories.
"One correspondent cites a brochure by a New York physician who complains of young American women going to Europe and getting breast-rings in Paris," Kadi writes, noting that the piercing was often associated with "ladies of the demi-monde" in La vie parisienne and Fin de siècle magazines. "The brochure sees breast-rings as dangerous to health and encouraging 'unhealthy sensuality.'" Those health concerns, combined with societal prudishness, are what likely led to their downfall.
"I think nipple piercing became unpopular because it was thought to be painful, [it] interrupted good breastfeeding, and it was considered a health risk," Rayner W. Hesse, author of Jewelrymaking Through History: An Encyclopedia, tells Broadly over email. "[Also], in the early 1900s, it was considered vulgar by the more Puritan mindset in America at the time."
But in the 1960s, nipple piercings started catching on in the United States for the first time, though it only become relatively common in the gay and BDSM scene. Fakir Musafar and Jim Ward, two revered characters in the LGBTQ community, pierced theirs around this time, and these practices influenced much of the body modifications in the kink and queer community, then and today.
Today, the trend is seeing a seemingly out-of-nowhere rise in popularity, according to local piercing shops. Adam Block, the general manager and senior piercer at Brooklyn's The End is Near, says he's seen a huge increase in the number of nipple piercing in the past year for women between the ages of 18 and 25. On the day he spoke with Broadly, Block had done four by the shop's close, though he says it's not unusual to do eight in a day. He estimates 80 percent of those are for women.
As to why the holes in our nipples are piquing our interest again, the reasons likely mimic those from the Victorian age: aesthetics, cultural status, and sexual arousal. Although Block gives only one reason for why he thinks this trend has shot up in popularity in the past year—celebrities.
"It's all Kylie's fault!" Block jokes over email.
Allen Dabbs, a piercer at generation8tattoo in Los Angeles, also credits Kylie Jenner, who famously Instagrammed a picture that showed her ring popping through a lavender shirt in January 2015, though she deleted after it caused "controversy." While celebrities like Bella Hadid, Rihanna, and even Kendall Jenner have theirs done, everyone's going after Kylie's look.
"I've had quite a few clients come in asking what side they should get it on because Kylie Jenner has it on that particular side," Dabbs says.
However, Block and Dabbs don't think they'll ever be as popular as ear piercings. "I think too many people have placed this stigma on nipple piercings, associating them with many different things like 'being a slut' or being 'too painful to receive,'" Dabbs says.
We will never truly know if they are as popular as we imagine they are.
But Adrian Castillo of New York City's Adorned is a little more optimistic, raising a fair point: Since we aren't all wearing dresses with plunging necklines, nipple rings could be infinitely more popular than we could ever estimate. We just can't see it.
"It's such a private piercing to some people that you could be in a room full of suits and you'd be surprised by what they have under their clothes," he says. "I think the cool thing about nipple piercing is that we will never truly know if they are as popular as we imagine they are."