Toplessness - the one Victorian taboo that won't go away

Femen protesters in Berlin Image copyright Getty Images

Current taboos against female toplessness date from the 19th Century. Is it ever likely to change, asks the novelist Sara Sheridan.

When I talk at book festivals and libraries about the restrictions faced by our many times great grandmothers, audiences invariably find the stories amusing.

Most fascinating of all is looking at what was forbidden. Sexual fidelity generally features at the top of the list of required female behaviour but running down that list uncovers a plethora of Dos and Don'ts for our female forbears.

During the heyday of the British Empire, a woman wouldn't dream of riding anything other than side-saddle, for example - not if she was a lady. To ride astride a horse was considered simply too sexual.

Likewise, matters of dress were key. It is difficult now to understand (and very easy to laugh at) the horror with which women wearing trousers were once viewed. There is the comical 1920s story of Mrs Aubrey Le Blond, the first president of the Women's Alpine Club, who, climbing in Switzerland, left her skirt by mistake up the Zinalrothorn. She made the decision to climb the mountain a second time to retrieve it rather than return to Zermatt in trousers.

The shocking nature of women in trousers persisted longer than we imagine from our 21st Century viewpoint. Half a century after Le Blond made her second ascent, Yves Saint Laurent launched his Le Smoking collection of women's eveningwear based on traditional male dinner suits and the fashion world was scandalised.

As a historical novelist I have to inhabit this now alien headspace to create believable characters that sit within their setting. For most people though I know such dilemmas seem a million miles and more than a few hundred years away. It's easy to think that previous generations were stupid for not thinking what we think. I wonder which aspects of our behaviour our great-grandchildren will find inexplicable.

No breach of etiquette elucidates the point more than the Victorian taboo about female toplessness. It's a taboo that, unlike most other Victorian constraints on women, persists to the present day.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Portrait of Nell Gwyn, attributed to Simon Verelst

French perception of what was acceptable for women was always different from British. In this our near neighbour provides a useful contrasting view and always has done. While Oliver Cromwell buttoned up every aspect of British society from the celebration of Christmas to the celebration of female flesh, there was a sigh of relief in England when Charles II returned to the throne in 1661 and brought with him a liberal attitude to female behaviour from the French court.

Nell Gwyn (1650-1687)

  • Eleanor "Nell" Gwyn was an actress and mistress of Charles II
  • Began her theatre career selling oranges; as an actress she was dubbed "pretty, witty Nell" by diarist Samuel Pepys
  • Became the King's mistress in 1669; they had two sons together
  • Charles II reported to have made the remark, "Let not poor Nelly starve" on his deathbed; she was awarded cash and pension by his successor, James II

Nell Gwyn (English actress) -- Encyclopedia Britannica

Necklines across the country quickly plummeted so far that lady's dressing table sets of the day might include pots of carnelian nipple make-up. Nell Gwyn, the king's mistress, was painted nude and even Frances Teresa Stuart (the court's It Girl) was painted with a top so low that her nipples are clearly visible. This fashion trickled down to common women (also portrayed in portraits of the day - often in landscapes) though the royal court with its taste for high fashion was the most extreme version of it. It's interesting to note that in contrast to today, the sight of an ankle was considered vastly more shocking than the sight of a female breast.

So when did our culture change - when did the Puritan breast-haters have their way? Like many 20th and 21st Century taboos, we need to look to the Victorian era when the Queen's innate prudishness tightened restrictions on women as surely as bone corsets stopped them taking in a deep breath.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption Duplessis's semi-topless portrait of the Princess of Lamballe dates from 18th Century France

A reigning monarch was a far greater influence on culture then than today and Victoria's childhood had been scarred by her domineering mother, the Duchess of Kent, who left the Queen with a lifelong horror of sexual impropriety. This quickly found adherents at court when she came to power and over the decades of her reign the queen's attitude to any suggestion of female sexuality quickly spread into all aspects of British public life.

While some women stretched the boundaries of what was acceptable - female adventurers like Isabella Bird, for example, travelled the world in her own right and became the first woman to join the Royal Geographical Society. Bird faced danger and difficulty on her many trips but one of her greatest triumphs came when the Times printed an allegation that she was wearing pantaloons rather than a skirt. When she threatened to sue, the newspaper backed down and issued an apology.

Just like today, women in the public eye often fought their most high-profile battles over their appearance, which was linked to any suggestion of inappropriate sexuality.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The right to breastfeed in public has been the subject of many protests

Toplessness continues to be a hot issue today. There is a mounting campaign to ban glamour models from Page 3. The campaign was recently given a boost when Sun owner Rupert Murdoch declared - ironically if you know anything about the history of the issue - that the concept might be "old-fashioned". Alongside this, there is an ongoing movement to promote the recognition of the rights of women to breastfeed in public.

In our digital age, the issue has been taken on to social media platforms with some providers allowing women to post topless photos while Instagram censors them. Scout Willis, daughter of actor Bruce Willis, recently walked topless through New York posting photographs of herself on Twitter all the way and using the hashtag #freethenipple. The Femen group have staged numerous topless demonstrations in favour of various political causes. Toplessness has become by turns a protest, a right and a call for sexual freedom.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Three topless protesters in Berlin demonstrate against Russian president Vladimir Putin

One definition of modern day feminism is a woman having control over her own body. While some Victorian restrictions on female behaviour have been removed (not least the taboo of sex before marriage) female toplessness persists as unacceptable concept for respectable women and feminist debate is split about it.

Image copyright Sara Sheridan
Image caption Sara Sheridan's picture on display at the Edinburgh Book Festival

For some it is a mark of freedom - a personal choice - while for others it represents the sexualisation of women's bodies by men. The fact that there is a debate, however, highlights that there may well soon be a shift in what we consider culturally acceptable - a shift that seems as shocking today as a woman wearing trousers was in the early 20th Century.

Recently at the Edinburgh International Book Festival I posed topless for the official festival photographer, Chris Close. The shot was taken from behind - a thistle drawn up my spine - a protest about an assertion by another crime writer that the cosy crime genre somehow wasn't Scottish.

The reaction was mixed. One member of staff insisted we cut short the photoshoot while others applauded my bravery. I have to admit, it was one of the scariest things I've ever done and truly, I wouldn't have done it full frontal. Later the picture went on display at the festival and I was stopped several times by members of the public who said they thought it was beautiful. I couldn't help thinking Charles II might have approved. Perhaps, just perhaps, things really are changing.

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