When Did Women Start Covering Their Breasts?

Answers to your questions about the news.
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.

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.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

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.)

Video Explainer: Why was Antietam the bloodiest battle in American history?

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Uh-Oh. The World’s Oceans Have Broken Their All-Time Heat Record.

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

How to Keep Apple From Sharing Your iPhone Data With the Police

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

A Simple Way to Keep Apple From Sharing Your iPhone Data With the Police

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
Outward
Sept. 18 2014 4:15 PM Reactions to a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Reveal Transmisogyny
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 18 2014 8:07 PM Crying Rape False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 4:33 PM The Top 5 Dadsplaining Moments From The Cosby Show
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.