From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Social conventions about covering the female breasts have differed widely throughout history and across cultures. While exposed breasts were (and are) a norm in many indigenous societies, most cultures in the world today have informal and formal dress codes, legal statutes, or religious teachings that require females to cover their breasts in public from adolescence onward. Contemporary Western cultures permit displays of cleavage in appropriate social contexts, but exposing the areolae and nipples is usually regarded as immodest and is sometimes prosecuted as indecent exposure. The topfreedom movement challenges laws that forbid females to go topless in places where males are permitted to be barechested, arguing that such restrictions amount to gender discrimination.
Toplessness is less controversial in entertainment, fashion, and the arts than it is in society as a whole, especially when it is perceived to have artistic merit. From early prehistoric art to the present day, women have been depicted topless in visual media from painting and sculpture to film and photography. In contemporary mainstream cinema, Academy Award–winning actresses such as Halle Berry, Kate Winslet, and Nicole Kidman have appeared topless in their films. Cabaret and burlesque shows, as well as haute couture fashion shows and pictorials, frequently include toplessness or see-through clothing.
Societies tend to take a stricter line when women expose their breasts for the clear purpose of sexual arousal. Toplessness in adult entertainment, such as in strip clubs or in softcore pornography, is regarded by some as indecent and is subject to more stringent government regulations or prohibitions.
Public toplessness may occasionally be considered acceptable, depending on location and context. Many jurisdictions legally protect women's right to breastfeed in public or exempt breastfeeding from public indecency laws. In many parts of Europe and Australia, as well as at many resort destinations around the world, it has become culturally and often legally acceptable for women to sunbathe topless on beaches. Topless sunbathing may also be permitted in non-beach areas, such as some European parks and lakes, designated areas on some cruise ships, and swimming pools at some hotels.
Usage and connotations
The word "topless" usually refers to a woman whose breasts are exposed to public view, specifically including her aerolae and nipples. It can describe a woman who appears, poses, or performs with her breasts exposed, such as a "topless model" or "topless dancer," or to an activity undertaken while not wearing a top, such as "topless sunbathing." It may indicate a designated location where one might expect to find women not wearing tops, such as a "topless beach" or "topless bar." It can also be used to describe a garment that is specifically designed to reveal the breasts, such as the "topless swimsuit" (also known as the monokini) designed by Rudi Gernreich in the 1960s.
The word "topless" may carry sexual or exhibitionist connotations. Because of this, advocates of women's legal right to uncover their breasts wherever men may go bare-chested have adopted the alternative term "topfree", which is not perceived to have these connotations.
In developing countries
Attitudes towards toplessness have varied considerably across cultures and over time. The lack of female clothing above the waist was the norm in traditional cultures of North America, Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islands until the arrival of Christian missionaries, and it continues to be the norm and acceptable in many indigenous cultures today. The practice was also the norm in various Asian cultures before Muslim expansion in the 13th and 14th centuries. Upper-class women had been clothed fully, while other women had gone topless in public in many parts of North India including Maharashtra and the Ganges basin before the Muslim conquest of India. Malayali people of Kerala had forced the women other than Brahmins and Kshatriya class to strip to waist in public until 1858 when the Kingdom of Travancore granted all women the right to cover their breasts in public. Toplessness was the norm for women in several indigenous peoples of South India, including the Tamils along the Coromandel coast, Tiyan and other peoples on the Malabar coast, Kadar of Cochin Island, Toda, Nayar, Cheruman (Pulayar), Kuruba, Koraga, Nicobarese, and the Uriya until the 19th century or early 20th century.
In Thailand, the government of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram issued a series of cultural standards between 1939 and 1942. Mandate 10 issued on September 8, 1941 instructed Thai people to not appear in public places "without being appropriately dressed". Inappropriate dress included "wearing no shirt or wearing a wraparound cloth."
Before the westernization of dress, Thai women were depicted both fully clothed and topless in public. Until the early 20th century, women from northern Thailand wore a long tube-skirt (Pha-Sin), tied high above their waist and below their breasts, which were uncovered. In the late 19th century the influence of missionaries and modernization under King Chulalongkorn encouraged local women to cover their breasts with blouses.
In Laos, Henri Mouhot took a picture in 1858 of Laotian women depicting virgins with clothed breasts and married women who revealed whole breasts in public, because the breast functioning as breastfeeding was considered to be desexed.
In the Indonesian region, toplessness was the norm among the Dayak, Javanese, and the Balinese people of Indonesia before the introduction of Islam and contact with Western cultures. In Javanese and Balinese societies, women had gone topless to work or rest comfortably. Among the Dayak, only big breasted women or married women with sagging breasts covered their breasts because their breasts interfered with their work.
In most Middle Eastern countries, toplessness has not been socially accepted since at least the early beginning of Islam (7th century), because of Islamic standards for female modesty. However, toplessness was the norm in earlier cultures within Arabia, Egypt, Assyria and Mesopotamia. Tunisia and Egypt are an exception among Arabic states, allowing foreign tourists to swim topless on private beaches.
In the Himba society of northern Namibia, the social norm is for women to be bare-breasted. In many indigenous, non-Western cultures it is acceptable for both men and women to be bare chested. Female toplessness can also constitute an important aspect of indigenous cultural celebrations. For example, in the annual Reed Dance festival mature girls between the ages of 16 and 20 dance topless before the Zulu king However, this can lead to cross-cultural and legal conflict. During 2004, Australian police banned members of the Papunya community from using a public park in the city of Alice Springs to practice a traditional Aboriginal dance that included topless women.
In Western culture
In much of contemporary Western society, it is not culturally acceptable for women to expose their nipples and areolae in public. In most Western societies, once girls enter adolescence, it is the social norm for them to behave modestly and cover their breasts in public. Until recent times, women who went topless were cited for Indecent exposure or lewdness. While neither women nor the law in most western countries generally regard breasts as indecent, most women are reluctant to go against the social norm of wearing a top in public. The strictness of the etiquette varies depending on the social context. For example, at specific cultural events the norm may be relaxed, such as at the Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. The same may also apply at a designated topless beach.
In many European societies between the Renaissance and the 19th century, exposed breasts were more acceptable than they are today, with a woman's bared legs, ankles or shoulders being considered to be more risqué than her exposed breasts. During the Renaissance, many artists were strongly influenced by classical Greek styles and culture, and images of nude and semi-nude subjects in many forms proliferated in art, sculpture and architecture of the period. In aristocratic and upper-class circles the display of breasts also invoked associations with classical Greek nude sculptures and art and a classic breast shape was at times regarded as a status symbol, as a sign of beauty, wealth or social position. To maintain youthful-looking bosoms women could employ wet nurses to breastfeed their children.
Breast-baring female fashions have been traced to 15th-century courtesan Agnès Sorel, mistress to Charles VII of France, whose gowns in the French court sometimes exposed one or both of her breasts. (Jean Fouquet's portrayal of the Virgin Mary with her left breast uncovered is believed to have taken Sorel as a model.) Aristocratic women sought to immortalise their breasts in paint, as in the case of Simonetta Vespucci, whose portrait with exposed breasts was painted by Piero di Cosimo in c.1480. During the 16th century, women's fashions displaying their breasts were common in society, from Queens to common prostitutes, and emulated by all classes.
Similar fashions became popular in England during the 17th century when they were worn by Queen Mary II and by Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I of England, for whom architect Inigo Jones designed a masque costume that fully revealed both of her breasts.
In a survey of 190 different societies, researches found very few associated exposed breasts with sexuality and insisted on women concealing their breasts. In Europe, the practice of concealing body parts with bathing suits was first challenged after World War II by the German nudist movement.
From the mid-19th century onward, however, social attitudes shifted to require women's breasts to be covered in public, especially in the United States. This attitude has been reflected to a more limited degree in the arts. In the 1930s, Hollywood films' portrayals of nude or scantily-clad women was brought to end by the implementation of the Hays Code. The Hays Code was abandoned in the late 1960s resulting in the increase in the number of films containing nudity in various forms. Different standards apply to art, with one example being the dome of the US Capitol featuring an 1865 fresco depicting goddesses with their breasts exposed.
Although some social attitudes began to soften during the late 1960s, contemporary Western societies still generally view toplessness unfavorably. During a short period in 1964, "topless" dress designs appeared at fashion shows, but those who wore the dresses in public found themselves arrested on indecency charges. However, toplessness has come to be a feature in contemporary haute couture fashion shows.
A wide-ranging review of 190 different societies during 1951 found that few insisted that women conceal their breasts. In Europe and Australia, topless swimming and sunbathing on public beaches has become socially acceptable. In 1994-95, Australian researchers asked 118 college-age students to rate the behavior of women who go topless on an 8 point scale, ranging from "Women should have the same right to topless as men" to "Topless women are exhibitionists". They found that 88% of Australian university students of either gender considered it acceptable for women to go topless on public beaches, although they felt that women exposing their breasts in other contexts, such as public parks, was inappropriate. They did not find a correlation between exposed breasts and sexuality in social situations.
A more recent study of 116 college-age women in Australia found that those who had gone topless were more accepting of toplessness generally, more sexual, and had higher self-esteem and higher body image. In contemporary society, the extent to which a woman may expose her breasts depends on social and cultural context. Women's swimsuits and bikinis commonly reveal the tops and sides of the breasts. Displaying cleavage is considered permissible in many settings, and is even a sign of elegance and sophistication on many formal social occasions, but it may be prohibited by dress codes in settings such as workplaces and schools, where sexualized displays of the female breast may be considered inappropriate. Showing the nipples or aerola is almost always considered partial nudity and sexually appealing. Women and girls may consider toplessness acceptable in gender segregated areas such as changing rooms and dormitories, and toplessness may be permitted in specific mixed-gender zones such as topless beaches (see below), but exposing female nipples and aerola is mostly confined to occasional acts of exhibitionism or protest. In a number of cultures, including Europe and other Westernized countries outside the United States, there are fewer social restrictions against sunbathing or swimming topless.
A online poll found that 99% of Germans and 93% of Britons were accepting of toplessness on a beach, compared to 92% of Swedes, 91% of Italians, and 67% of Russians. In Canada, a poll in 1992 found that 38% favored general female public toplessness. Following that survey, several legal rulings in Canadian courts from 1996 to 2000 made public toplessness legal, but very few women take advantage of the rulings.
Some cultures have even begun to expand social prohibitions on female toplessness to prepubescent and even infant girls. This trend toward covering the female nipple from infancy onward is particularly noticeable in the United States, Eastern Asia and the Middle East, but is much less common in Europe.
Around the world, it is common for women to breastfeed in public. In the United States during the 1990s and later, there were a number of legal incidents where women were harassed or cited for exposing their breasts while breastfeeding in public. A public backlash spurred legislators in some jurisdictions to specifically legalize public breastfeeding. The federal government passed a law in 1999 that specifically provides that "a woman may breastfeed her child at any location in a Federal building or on Federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location." Some women have engaged in acts of "lactivism," or acts of politically motivated public breastfeeding, to assert these rights.
In many indigenous, non-Western cultures it is generally acceptable for both men and women not to cover their torsos. Female toplessness can also be a traditional aspect in indigenous cultural celebrations. However, this can lead to cross-cultural and legal conflict. During 2004, Australian police banned female members of the Papunya community from using a public park in the city of Alice Springs to practice a traditional Aboriginal dance while topless.
Many societies consider women who expose their nipples and areolae as immodest and contrary to social norms. In many jurisdictions a topless woman may be socially or officially harassed or cited for public lewdness, indecent exposure, public indecency or disorderly conduct. The topfreedom movement has claimed success in a few instances in persuading federal courts in the United States to overturn some state laws on the basis of sex discrimination, arguing that a woman should be free to expose her chest in any context in which a man can expose his.
In March 2008, after a year-long campaign by a pressure group, the Topless Front, Copenhagen's Culture and Leisure Committee voted to approve topless bathing by women. Also in 2008, the city council in Vancouver, British Columbia, location of the World Naked Bike Ride, gave women the right to go topless in public, not solely at swimming pools and beaches.
In 2009, members of the Swedish feminist organization Bara Bröst (Just Breast or Bare Breast) went topless at the city pools in Malmö, Sweden. This triggered a vote by the city's sports and recreation committee, which backed away from requiring women to wear a top, only stipulating that everyone must wear a swimsuit. Their ruling allows women in Sweden to swim topless in Malmö's public swimming pools "We don’t decide what men should do with their torso, why then do women have to listen to the men. Moreover, many men have larger breasts than women", the committee chair said.
In New York City, the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society has organized regular gatherings of women who read books in public while topless.
As a form of protest
Because toplessness often generates media coverage, some female political demonstrators have deliberately exposed their breasts in public to draw attention to their cause. For example, in January 2012, the Ukrainian protest group FEMEN attracted worldwide media attention after some members staged a topless protest at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
GoTopless.org, a U.S. organization, claims that women have the same constitutional right to be bare chested in public places as men. They further claim constitutional equality between men and women on being topless in public. They have successfully joined in legal challenges that have resulted in laws permitting women to expose their breasts just as men do in New York State and in Ontario, Canada. In 2009, they used August 26 (Women's Equality Day), as a day of national protest.
Toplessness in a public place is most commonly practised or encountered at the beach, either as part of a swimming activity or sunbathing. Sunbathing and a tanned skin became increasing popular after the 1920s. In the 1940s, advertisements started appearing in women’s magazines which encouraged sunbathing, which was viewed as a healthy practice. The body coverage of swimsuits began to reduce and the introduction of the bikini in 1946 accelerated the trend. However, tanning while wearing a swimsuit created visible tan lines which were not popular and which many people regarded as un-aesthetic and embarrassing. Women made an effort to avoid creating tan lines, such as undoing the back strap when lying prone, or removing shoulder straps, besides wearing swimsuits which covered less area than normal clothing. Furthermore, many women did not feel comfortable in wet swimsuits. However, the social norm expecting women to wear a swimsuit when bathing in a public place remained in place, though some women questioned the reason for the wearing of swimsuits. However, only a few women felt confident enough to defy the convention and actually dispensed with them, though swimsuits became increasingly abbreviated and form fitting. Some women sunbathed in their backyards, where they could tan topless or less.
In 1964, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich designed the first topless swimsuit, which he called the "monokini" in the US. The design was first printed by Look magazine. Gernreich's monokini looked like a one-piece swimsuit suspended from two halter straps in the cleavage of bared breasts. It had only two small straps over the shoulders, leaving the breasts bare. Despite the reaction of fashion critics and church officials, shoppers purchased the monokini in record numbers that summer, though very few monokinis were ever worn in public. By the end of the season, Gernreich had sold 3000 swimsuits at $24 a piece, which meant a tidy profit for such a minuscule amount of fabric. The novelty of the design caught significant attention, and San Francisco Chronicle featured a woman in a monokini with her exposed breasts clearly visible on its first page. A photograph of Peggy Moffitt, the famous model for the suit, appeared in Women's Wear Daily, Life and numerous other publications.
The topless swimsuit was not successful in the United States where women never wore it on beaches. The Soviet government called it "barbarism" and a sign of social "decay". The New York City Police Department was strictly instructed to arrest any woman wearing a swimsuit by the commissioner of parks. In Chicago, a 19-year-old female beachgoer was fined US$100 for wearing a topless swimsuit on a public beach. Copious coverage of the event helped to send the image of exposed breasts across the world. Women's clubs and the church were particularly active in their condemnation. In Italy and Spain, the Catholic Church warned against the topless fashion. Even in Saint-Tropez, French Riviera, it was banned. Jean-Luc Godard, a founding mover of French New Wave cinema, incorporated a shot of a woman in a topless swimsuit on the Riviera into his film A Married Woman, but it was edited out by the censors.
In the mid-1960s, while Gernreich was promoting his monokini, and before the rise of woman's liberation, with its call for women to retake control of their bodies, women achieved the same result (at a lower cost) by simply removing their bikini tops. The first women to publicly defy the law and convention were movie starlets and models at Cannes and Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera. These acts achieved worldwide publicity and these resorts became popular for women who wanted to sunbathe topless.
A number of Caribbean locations, especially those that were formerly French and Dutch colonies, permit nude and topless sunbathing, like the French West Indies islands of St. Barths, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St. Maarten.
Sunbathing topless slowly spread to many Western countries throughout Europe and Australia, many of which now allow topless sunbathing on some or all of their beaches, either through legal statute or by generally accepted practice. A topless, or top-optional, beach differs from a nude beach in that beach goers of both sexes are required to keep their genital area covered, although females have the option to remove their tops without fearing legal prosecution or official harassment.
In the South Pacific, while toplessness was relatively common prior to contact with Western society, it is less common today. On the French territory of Moorea, toplessness is common.
However, media reports in recent years note that the number of women sunbathing topless on French beaches has markedly declined, and that younger French women have become more disapproving of exposing breasts in public. Even in some parts of Europe generally considered to have a liberal attitude towards toplessness, such as Sweden, surveys show there is considerable resistance to its acceptance.
In media and the arts
The French have traditionally been relaxed with nudity and toplessness in entertainment, and dancers and actresses performed topless during the 1910s and beyond in musical theater and cinema. Toplessness in entertainment has survived to this day at the Folies Bergère and the Moulin Rouge.
In many Western cultures today, images of topless women are regularly featured in magazines, calendars, and other print media. In the United Kingdom, following a tradition established by the British newspaper The Sun in 1970, several mainstream tabloid newspapers feature topless female models on their third page, known as Page Three girls. Although images of topless women are increasingly prevalent in Western magazines and film, images of topless girls under the age of eighteen years are controversial, and are potentially considered child pornography in some jurisdictions. Photographers such as Jock Sturges and Bill Henson, whose work regularly depicts topless and naked adolescent girls, have been prosecuted or been embroiled in controversy because of these images. Even insinuated toplessness by minors can cause controversy.
Women are also at times employed in adult-only venues to perform or pose topless in forms of commercial erotic entertainment. Such venues can range from downmarket strip clubs and topless bars to upmarket cabarets, such as the Moulin Rouge. Topless entertainment may also include competitions such as wet T-shirt contests in which women display their breasts through translucent wet fabric—and may end up removing their T-shirts in front of the audience.
Female toplessness has also become somewhat common during Mardi Gras in New Orleans during which women "flash" (briefly expose) their breasts in return for strings of plastic beads, and at Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, where floats occasionally feature topless women.
In the 1920s, toplessness was featured in some Hollywood silent films as well as on the stage, though not without objections from various groups, and several jurisdictions in the United States set up film censorship boards to censor films. In the 1930s, the Hays Code brought an end to nudity in all its forms, including toplessness, in Hollywood films. Social and official attitudes to toplessness have eased since those days and the Code came under repeated challenge in the 1950s and 60s, and had to be abandoned. Women now appear topless in mainstream cinema, although usually somewhat briefly. A notable exception was Rapa Nui which featured repeated scenes of bare-breasted native women. Film critic Roger Ebert said the producers got away with ongoing toplessness because of the women's brown skin:
- Rapa Nui slips through the National Geographic Loophole. This is the Hollywood convention which teaches us that brown breasts are not as sinful as white ones, and so while it may be evil to gaze upon a blond Playboy centerfold and feel lust in our hearts, it is educational to watch Polynesian maidens frolicking topless in the surf. This isn't sex; it's geography.
It has become increasingly common for actresses to appear topless in movies. Actresses who have appeared topless include Jane Fonda (Coming Home, 1978), Julie Andrews (S.O.B., 1981), Patsy Kensit (Lethal Weapon II, 1989), Kate Winslet (Titanic, 1997), Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love, 1998), Reese Witherspoon (Twilight, 1998), Rene Russo (The Thomas Crown Affair, 1999), Katie Holmes (The Gift, 2000), Rhona Mitra in (Hollow Man, 2000), and Halle Berry (Swordfish, 2001). Many more have appeared nude. Toplessness in film is no longer considered controversial. In an interview in March 2007, Halle Berry said that her toplessness in Swordfish was "gratuitous" to the movie, but that she needed to do the scene to get over her fear of nudity, and that it was the best thing she did for her career. Having overcome her inhibitions, she went on to a role in Monster's Ball, which included a nude scene and which won her an Oscar for best actress. Some actresses prefer not to expose their breasts and use a body double.
In the arts
In many European societies as a result of the Renaissance many artists were strongly influenced by classical Greek styles and culture. As a result, images of nude and semi-nude subjects in many forms proliferated in art and sculpture.
During the Victorian era, French Orientalist painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme presented an idealized depiction of female toplessness in Muslim harem baths, while Eugène Delacroix, a French romantic artist, invoked images of liberty as a topless woman.
From the mid-19th century onward, there was a shift in social attitudes in the West, especially in the United States, towards the prohibition of the exposure of women's breasts. This has been reflected to a more limited degree in the arts.
The artifacts in the Ancient City Museum located in the Bangkok neighbourhood depict Thai women topless. The Ramakien Mural representing the epic lives of the Thai people found at the Wat Phra Kaew Temple depict Thai women wearing only a skirt in public.
- Wild Woman with Unicorn, c. 1500–1510 (Basel Historical Museum)
- Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia
- Liberty Leading the People Eugène Delacroix, 1830, French
- Édouard Manet – Blonde Woman with Bare Breasts (c.1878)
- Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci (c.1480), by Piero di Cosimo
In European pre-historic societies, sculptures of female figures with pronounced or highly exaggerated breasts were common. A typical example is the so-called Venus of Willendorf, one of many Paleolithic Venus figurines with ample hips and bosom. Artifacts such as bowls, rock carvings and sacred statues with breasts have been recorded from 15,000 BC up to late antiquity all across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Many female deities representing love and fertility were associated with breasts and breast milk. Figures of the Phoenician goddess Astarte were represented as pillars studded with breasts. Isis, an Egyptian goddess who represented, among many other things, ideal motherhood, was often portrayed as suckling pharaohs, thereby confirming their divine status as rulers. Even certain male deities representing regeneration and fertility were occasionally depicted with breast-like appendices, such as the river god Hapy who was considered to be responsible for the annual overflowing of the Nile. Female breasts were also prominent in the Minoan civilization in the form of the famous Snake Goddess statuettes. In Ancient Greece there were several cults worshiping the "Kourotrophos", the suckling mother, represented by goddesses such as Gaia, Hera and Artemis. The worship of deities symbolized by the female breast in Greece became less common during the first millennium. The popular adoration of female goddesses decreased significantly during the rise of the Greek city states, a legacy which was passed on to the later Roman Empire.
During the middle of the first millennium BC, Greek culture experienced a gradual change in the perception of female breasts. Women in art were covered in clothing from the neck down, including female goddesses like Athena, the patron of Athens who represented heroic endeavor. There were exceptions: Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was more frequently portrayed fully nude, though in postures that were intended to portray shyness or modesty, a portrayal that has been compared to modern pin-ups by historian Marilyn Yalom. A popular legend at the time was of the Amazons, a tribe of fierce female warriors who socialized with men only for procreation and even removed one breast to become better warriors. The legend was a popular motif in art during Greek and Roman antiquity and served as an antithetical cautionary tale.