Sunday, April 01, 2012

A History of the Nipple in Polite Society

There's a set of women's clothing retailers that market their wares to sporty women who, if the catalogs can be believed, are kayaking one minute, rock climbing the next and then jetting off to Nepal for a little yoga.  That is so not my style, but these retailers sell comfy little dresses that you can just throw on and look casual and stay cool in hot weather, unlike Anthropologie, where you buy a dress that looks casual in the dressing room and then you show up at the grocery store looking like you confused it with a garden party.

Anyway, I was paging through the Athleta catalog, one of the sporty retailers described above, and came across this description for one of their dresses:  "Built-in support that helps thwart the headlights." The catalog features other garments that claim they "turn headlights to lowlights."  It took me a while to realize that "headlights" means nipples, specifically nipples whose outline is visible through a shirt.  Obviously I need to be more in tune with the urban dictionary, but that's not my subject today.

I certainly don't have an issue with any woman's sense of personal modesty.  I also don't have an issue with slang terms for breasts--I have read the Flashman novels, after all. I don't even have too much of an issue with a catalog aimed at strong, independent women, using a coy euphemism for nipples.  It's silly, but not worth working oneself into a rage.  I do have an issue with general prudishness.  Why is nudity, plain nudity without a sexual context, so offensive in this country?

When I was about seven years old I had a Dover Books coloring book of classical ballet.  In the Sleeping Beauty pictures--copies of drawings from the 18th century--the ballerinas wear costumes that expose their nipples.  I was a little surprised, but since Santa had given me the coloring book, I decided it must be OK and that nipples once were considered appropriate for public display.  My sense of delicacy, which didn't want to color in the nipples, got into a battle with my developing OCD, which couldn't bear to see a picture not colored in properly.  I was correct in my assumption that this was how people dressed in the 18th century.  Not everybody, of course, and probably not anybody in America, but certain daring ladies of fashion did wear dresses that exposed their nipples as evidenced by the 18th century fashion plate below, and the portrait of Pauline Bonaparte.

Eventually Queen Victoria came along and nipples were kept firmly in check, along with the rest of the female form, as voluminous skirts disguised any suggestion that women have working parts below the waist, and tight corsets controlled the upper half of their bodies.  Indeed, even pianos famously wore skirts, and "legs" was not a word to use in polite conversation and was replaced with the more ambiguous "limbs."

Queen Victoria herself was painted wearing some daring necklines but the prudishness of the Victorian era lingers to this day.

During the women's movement, women allegedly burned their bras, or at least stopped wearing them, as they were uncomfortable and created an unnatural and extremely silly silhouette.

I assume that secondary to bra-spurning, nipples were visible in the seventies and that people just got used to it.  Now the nipple is under attack again. In 2004, the nation had a collective heart attack when Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" exposed her entire right breast, for a split second, at the Super Bowl.

A few years ago, I read an article that ranted about the new T-shirt bras as being prudish and anti-women.  This surprised me, as I was an enthusiastic purchaser of tee-shirt bras.  The author's point was that T- shirt bras were specifically designed to prevent nipples from being visible through thin cotton tee shirt material.  I was a little dismayed to discover that I had unwittingly been participating in a backward movement to bring shame to the nipple.  I can't find a link to the original article I read, but here's a similar one: The Tyranny of the T-Shirt Bra

Not only must we now put a foam barrier between our nipples and the outside world, we still have yahoos who complain about public breastfeeding.  It's curious that in a germophobic society like ours, women are still told to nurse their babies in public bathrooms.  I have some sympathy for men.  It would be embarassing for most men to accidentally blunder into a women's locker room.  For some of them, a sudden exposure to public breastfeeding must feel something like that.  However, there is no excuse for one woman to hate on another woman for public breastfeeding.  We have babies and babies need to be fed.  If nipples are exposed for a split second during this process, we need to be grown up about it and not make a fuss and start spluttering about bathrooms.  One response to the anti-breastfeeding prudes is this brilliant beanie.

As Jerry Seinfeld said, " What? So what? It's a nipple. A little brown circular protuberance. What's the big deal? See everybody's got them. See I got them."  The sight of one will not hurt you, it will not corrupt your children.  

Nowadays, women expose their knees and they wear trousers, things that the nipple-barers of the 18th century would have considered shocking.  The leggings-as-pants trend has inspired tongue-in-cheek criticism such as the Am I wearing pants? flowchart, but no serious outcry that I've been aware of or fashion backlash in the form of a new trend for hoop skirts. Why then, are nipples so reviled?

If some women prefer to keep their nipples well-shielded, that's perfectly fine.  It would be foolish and misguided to take a stance against personal modesty and that is not my intention in writing this post.  Some women feel more comfortable in a bra and prefer to wear them and modern bras are certainly more comfortable than the ones that predate the women's movement. Other women find bras to be uncomfortable,  particularly in the summer, and if they prefer to go braless or wear dresses that don't come equipped with nipple armor, they should be able to without encurring the disapproval of society.


  1. The abundance of padded bras drives me crazy. I certainly don't need extra padding, and am irrationally jealous of anyone who doesn't need a bra; and my 12-year old daughter definitely does NOT need padding. Yet it's almost impossible to find a basic pre-teen bra that isn't padded.

  2. When I worked in fundraising in the late 90's in NYC and the Hamptons, I noticed a trend at several summer benefits. It was to wear nipple inserts with your evening gown.

  3. Totally agree.

    And I'm conflicted about my 11-year old, who really only has breast buds, but feels she needs to wear a bra (no cups or pads), even though it's not like she needs support. Because, of course, all the other 11 year old girls are wearing them.

  4. Your description of coloring those pictures KILLED me. I'd have been exactly the same way.
    Who knew nipples were so controversial? I find it funny that people freak about breastfeeding but say nothing about magazine covers that show much more anatomy...
    That said, as a SMALL girl, I'm thankful for any padding I can get.

  5. Being a mammary challenged bloke, I can't really comment on the bra types. But nipples are something else.
    When I served in the Army, it was a regular occurance for many soldiers to cover our nipples with a bit of sticking plaster, as "nipple burn" was a common occurance in wet/hot weather with the uniform material of those times.

    PS. We also wore tights under our combats (with strategic holes cut-away)to keep warm when we were in winter exercises.
    It doesn't offend me in the least when a mum feeds her baby in public, whether it's a bottle or a breast, the baby needs fed. What's the big deal?

  6. I found this post when I was doing a research on bare breasts in the 17th and 18th century and I found it very interesting! I hope you don't mind that I linked back to you.

  7. Thanks Isis. Your article is interesting!

  8. I find myself torn. Ideologically, I am firmly in the pro-nipple camp. I have them, as well as large breasts, and it's hard enough to get a bra in my rare size, let alone one molded in a way that fits my shape.

    That said, I teach college students and am on display in a profession that is often hostile toward female junior faculty. For whatever reason, bustiness in general seems rare among my colleagues and I have to dress very carefully to be taken seriously by students and colleagues. I'm contingent faculty as well, and can't afford to let my personal belief in nipple-positive wear, the evil of shaving (the rashes!), and similar things get in the way of my larger impact. Quite simply, I need to budget my power of speech and influence to do the greatest good (in my case, discussing feminism and privilege with resistant students).

    I used to wear the full battle gear padding (Panache sports bra - it's a breastplate!), but now I've opted for heavier cotton dresses with more comfortable unlined bras. I hope this becomes part of the ongoing discussion of body acceptance in public.

  9. Actually North American women did indeed wear nipple bearing fashions in the 1700s. The trading forts had women at them; people who wanted to to look as "in fashion" as they could. As a result the European fashion of wearing a very low bustline (enough so that breast feeding took place without a garment adjustment) however as many of these forts were located in places like Canada is was COLD and so it was common to have a scarf with which to cover the bare flesh when in a colder location. An explanation this type of fashion information often accompanied the "docent" speeches at tours of places like Fort Nisqually, however, just as in movies like "Shakespeare In Love" there were no nipples on display at the forts, as nobody wanted to freak out the American protestant tourists.

    "Shakespeare In Love" is an intersting thing to mention as movies like this show NO nipples, except in sexual circumstances - and it was a major plot point that a younger male actor CONFIRMED the fact that a woman had been trying to pass as a man in order to act at "The Globe".

    In point of fact, with how common the "Extreme Décolletage" gown was in the Elizabethan era (the Queen wore them - even into older age) and the fact that the poorer people (*who did not have high end clothing and "dressers" to help them into their clothing) would mimic the "Extreme Décolletage" style by wearing their bodices unlaced so that their breasts were quite visible. A real lad of that era would have seen breast all day every day.

    We also get this odd movie censorship in all of the "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice" productions, where the actual formal female dress of women in the evening was quite often "nudity à la grecque" in which there was no breast support aside from the sheer fabric (clothing one could see through). There are even satire artworks that show groups of women in their "full dress", and another comparing the most extreme for of "ruffed" Elizabethan clothing, with that of the new style (the title is "too much, to little").

    In the Elizabethan and the Empire periods, Rhianna would have fit in just fine.