The question of bras in lockdown has been a contentious one. Tweets abound from those enjoying quarantine sans bra sets, struggling to imagine a return to a fully dressed, partially under wired world. A mild rash of articles based on disproven scientific claims has emerged, questioning whether prolonged periods of braless nests will lead to breast sagging (short answer: no, the only real worry is for those with fuller busts whose bra sets offer significant support and help to ease back pain). Elsewhere statistics point to some fascinating – and contrary – consumer behaviors. Lingerie sales are rocketing: lacy and racy varieties have enjoyed a significant leap, while sales of Calvin Klein’s soft-cup style at Selfridges have risen by 70%.
Let’s return for a moment to those 18th-century dresses. At many points throughout this complicated history, the nipple has formed a consciously chosen element of an outfit – to decorative and political ends. Emilie du Chattered, born in 1706, was a natural philosopher and mathematician who is now remembered – somewhat frustratingly – for her role as Voltaire’s mistress. She was also known contemporaneously for her penchant for low-cut dresses that revealed her nipples, which she rouged to accentuate their appearance – the same attention we might give our eyes or cheeks today. She wasn’t an anomaly either. The fashion for tight bodices that cantilevered breasts into a position where the nipple might be visible proved popular. In an era where breasts didn’t always have the immediately eroticized connotations that they do today, they formed an intriguing accessorizing possibility.
Sometimes their desired effect was obvious. Pauline Bonaparte, sister of Napoleon, was born in 1780 and had a taste for scandal. Not only did she allegedly commission a gold cup in the shape of her breast – a truly artisanal form of exhibitionism – but she too rouged her nipples and is said to have revealed in others’ responses to her sheer dresses.
Many of the current crop of famous figures could be said to embody this kind of ’90s style and silhouette: the likes of Kendall Jenner, Bella Hasid, Due Lipan, Zoë Kraits, Mile Cyrus. Regularly cited in articles about the resurgence of the nipple in recent years (and invariably described in The Daily Mail as ‘flashing’, ‘flaunting’ and ‘leaving little to the imagination’ whenever they commit the crime of being a woman in public without a bra sets), they nonetheless fit a particular beauty mould. It is a mould whereby a visible nipple is a bodily fact rather than anything especially daring.
There are other figures to think about, too, during these long, half-dressed days at home – not least patron saint of the nipple-as-fashion-statement, Riana. When she turned up at the CFDA awards in 2014, glittering from neck to ankle in a sheer gown, she asked one reporter: “Do my tits bother you? They’re covered in Swarovski crystals, girl!” Sitting here in my grey American Apparel T-shirt, which I’ve worn twice this week already, that seems like a much more dazzling version of braless nests than any I’m currently experiencing.
When did you last wear a bra sets? Perhaps you’re perturbed by the question – you have one on right now, of course. Or has it become occasion wear, slung on for Zoom meetings, date nights at the dining table or, thrillingly, just for the sake of it when venturing into the outside world for groceries. Maybe, like me, you’re not quite sure when you last put one on and couldn’t even say where most of yours now is – I think at least three of mine have been inadvertently kicked under the bed to gather dust and cat hair.
Much of this contention is the result of the various loaded meanings bestowed on breasts throughout history. Whether maternal and life-giving, brimming with erotic potential, or subject to highly uncomfortable objectification, they have never been a particularly neutral body part. A cursory look at representations of the nipple in popular culture tells a conflicting tale of motherhood and sexuality, with an eclectic range of references: Renaissance portraits of the Madonna and Child; paintings of the 18th-century French aristocracy, nipples peeking out above embellished necklines; images of catwalk models swathed in the translucent fabric; Ellen Von Un worth’s highly sexualized photo shoots.