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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.