When Did Women Start Covering Their Breasts?

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Sept. 19 2012 3:41 PM

When Did Bare Breasts Become Taboo?

Topless Kate Middleton photos would have been socially acceptable in some eras.

Prince William and Kate Middleton in Marau, Solomon Islands.
Prince William and Kate Middleton in Marau, Guadacanal Province, Solomon Islands, on Monday

Photo by Mark Large/Getty Images.

A French judge ordered the magazine Closer to turn over topless photos of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, on Tuesday. Attorneys for the magazine argued unsuccessfully that the photographs were not an invasion of privacy because bare breasts are no longer taboo in Europe. When did bare breasts become taboo in Western civilization?

Probably around 3,000 years ago. Women are displayed with exposed breasts in Minoan artwork from 1500 B.C. Some historians believe that these ancient women went topless only during religious rituals—bare-breasted, buxom goddesses have been worshipped since the dawn of civilization—but some of the artworks depict everyday activities, suggesting that bare breasts may have been commonplace. Just across the Mediterranean, ancient Egyptian women sported elaborate dresses that could either cover the breasts or leave them exposed, depending on the whim of the designer. Over the next few centuries, however, breasts become strictly private parts. Ancient Athenian women were wearing flowing, multilayered robes that concealed the shape of the bosom by the middle of the first millennium B.C. Spartan attire was more risqué, exposing the female thigh, but breasts were always covered.

A series of sculptures suggests that even Greek goddesses became more bashful about their breasts during this period. Aphrodite of Cnidus, sculpted by Praxiteles of Athens in the fourth century B.C., depicts the nude goddess covering her genitals but leaving her bosom exposed. In copycat statues sculpted over the next several centuries, however, the goddess uses her other hand to cover a breast as well. The evolution of these Venus pudica sculptures strongly suggests that the ancients had come to feel that modesty required covering the breasts.

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It’s not entirely clear why bare breasts became verboten in ancient Greece, but some historians think it had to do with the changing roles of women. As the centuries progressed, ancient Athens became an increasingly patriarchal society. Women retreated into the home, rarely emerging in public, and lived under the dominion of their fathers or husbands. Because the breast had long been a symbol of feminine fertility, it had to be kept from view.

Under the influence of the Bible and ancient Greek and Roman traditions, Western women kept their breasts concealed beneath loose-fitting garb for more than a millennium. The French aristocracy was the first to challenge the taboo. During the 1300s, necklines began to plunge and clothing became tighter, exposing the shape of the breast. Agnès Sorel, the mistress to French King Charles VII, shocked the court by appearing in a painting with one breast fully exposed in the late 1400s.* The most provocative ladies of Venice and England are said to have walked the streets bare-breasted in the following century. There are even hints that Queen Elizabeth I herself exposed all or nearly all of her breasts to guests, which, if true, might provide some comfort to the young Duchess of Cambridge. But the trend was temporary, and the general prohibition on bare breasts in European society was firmly entrenched again by the 1600s.

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Explainer thanks Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Breast and the forthcoming book How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance.

Correction, Sept. 24, 2012: This article originally misspelled the name of Agnès Sorel, French King Charles VII's mistress who appeared in a painting with a breast exposed. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.