When did you last wear a bra? Perhaps you’re perturbed by the question – you have one on right now, of course. Or has it become occasion wear, slung on for Zoom meetings, date nights at the dining table or, thrillingly, just for the sake of it when venturing into the outside world for groceries. Maybe, like me, you’re not quite sure when you last put one on and couldn’t even say where most of yours now are – I think at least three of mine have been inadvertently kicked under the bed to gather dust and cat hair.
Much of this contention is the result of the various loaded meanings bestowed on breasts throughout history. Whether maternal and life-giving, brimming with erotic potential or subject to highly uncomfortable objectification, they have never been a particularly neutral body part. A cursory look at representations of the nipple in popular culture tells a conflicting tale of motherhood and Sєxuality, with an eclectic range of references: Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and Child; paintings of 18th-century French aristocracy, nipples peeking out above embellished necklines; images of catwalk models swathed in translucent fabric; Ellen Von Unwerth’s highly Sєxualised pH๏τoshoots.
Let’s return for a moment to those 18th-century dresses. At many points throughout this complicated history the nipple has formed a consciously chosen element of an outfit – to decorative and political ends. Émilie du Châtelet, born in 1706, was a natural philosopher and mathematician who is now remembered – somewhat frustratingly – for her role as Voltaire’s mistress. She was also known contemporaneously for her penchant for low-cut dresses that revealed her nipples, which she rouged to accentuate their appearance – the same attention we might give our eyes or cheeks today. She wasn’t an anomaly either. The fashion for тιԍнт bodices that cantilevered breasts into a position where the nipple might be visible proved popular. In an era where breasts didn’t always have the immediately eroticised connotations that they do today, they formed an intriguing accessorising possibility.
It was in the ’90s, though, that nipples really went mainstream. Madonna famously bared hers in a Jean-Paul Gaultier harness at the designer’s 1992 amfAR fundraiser in Los Angeles. Kate Moss regularly wore sheer slips and barely there dresses, and plenty of her supermodel peers walked in shows for YSL, John Galliano, Prada and Alexander McQueen (among others), their breasts either partially or fully revealed. Following on from her ‘тιтs’ T-shirt of the ’70s – now part of the collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – Vivienne Westwood continued to nod to the historic eras she regularly raided for inspiration, designing low-cut bodices that squashed the wearer’s boobs into the revealing territory of those 18th-century rouged nipple devotees.
On TV, too, nipples featured prominently. Think Debra Messing on Will and Grace, the cast of Sєx and the City (preceding, of course, Samantha’s stick-on nipples of season 4) and, perhaps most significantly, Rachel on Friends. Through relationship mishaps, ill-advised cat purchases and many, many hours in Central Perk, Jennifer Aniston’s nipples formed a strangely integral part of her character’s wardrobe, complementing a rotation of тιԍнт tanks, sleeveless turtlenecks, cropped jumpers and V-necks. The prevalence of the nipple on late ’90s TV screens might be explained by the narrow range of padded bras available at the time compared to our present abundance of choice. But it also embodies a particular cultural moment – one that championed sartorial freedom, comfort, tongue-in-cheek provocation, female independence, and thinness.
Many of the current crop of famous figures could be said to embody this kind of ’90s style and silhouette: the likes of Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Dua Lipa, Zoë Kravitz, Miley Cyrus. Regularly cited in articles about the resurgence of the nipple in recent years (and invariably described in The Daily Mail as ‘flashing’, ‘flaunting’ and ‘leaving little to the imagination’ whenever they commit the crime of being a woman in public without a bra), they nonetheless fit a particular beauty mould. It is a mould whereby a visible nipple is a bodily fact rather than anything especially daring.