Before Rihanna‘s Instagram controversy or Miley Cyrus‘ nipples came out to play, bare breasts were in vogue and embraced by many cultures. In fact, exposed breasts have been a part of fashion history for millennium; bodacious symbolism dates back to ancient times, especially when depicting divine beings and goddesses in art.
Even in more conservative times, designers have found a way to celebrate the female body, with pieces that revolutionized basic silhouettes…or spawned countless of memes. Either way, their purpose has helped establish exposed breasts as necessary components of style, the pious be damned.
In the 19th century, Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s little sister, owned and flaunted her sexuality. It was said the impulsive princess often wore sheer dresses that exposed her breasts, even in front of men.
In the American silent film Cleopatra, Theda Bara played the scantily-clad titular character. Although the movie was eventually considered too obscene for viewing by the Hays Code (an industry ethics standard), it attracted widespread audiences nonetheless.
If there was ever a bad girl of pin-up, it was Bettie Page. In the mid ’50s, the American beauty posed for photographer Irving Klaw in BDSM-themed photographs, wearing leather restraints and dominatrix-style lingerie, further cementing her legacy as one of the first mainstream bondage models. In 1955, she was also chosen as Playboy‘s January centerfold.
The monokini—the one-piece sexy swimsuit Beyoncé helped make trendy this season—was quite the different garment back in the ‘60s. American designer Rudi Gernreich first introduced the monokini as a topless swimsuit. He later went on to design the No-Bra bra, which changed the undergarments game with its more natural shape and sheer fabrics.
As if Madonna‘s headline-making cone bras and bustiers weren’t shocking enough, she also strutted down Jean-Paul Gaultier’s runway in a pin-stripe dress with straps that accentuated her nude breasts. More recently, Alexander McQueen and Christian Dior have followed suit by showing ultra-sheer pieces.
Who could forget the moment when music legend Diana Ross playfully fondled rapper Lil’ Kim‘s mermaid-pasty-laden boob at the MTV Video Music Awards? Believe it or not, similar nipple coverings are still in favor at European music festivals today—and probably found under many a red carpet-worthy gown.
This year served as the height of the sideboob trend. Models and celebrities left just a little to the imagination with silhouettes cut to show just a sliver of cleavage on the sides of tops and dresses. Everyone from Katy Perry to Miley Cyrus partook in the trend.
With celebrity nude magazine covers, models walking in barely-there coverings and the #freethenipple campaign, bare breasts are more exposed than ever. But this time around, it’s not about exploitation or even shock value: Women are going bare as a free-wheeling form of expression and a way of embracing their sexuality.
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