Sara Sheridan writes historical novels and also runs REEK. perfume. Her first fragrance, Damn Rebel Bitches, is a tribute in scent to the Jacobite women and has been called ‘the first feminist fragrance.’ We have been lucky enough to have her share her research and insights into the history of being topless.
My first love is women’s history – much of it hidden or lost. You can tell a lot about a culture or an era by what it deems acceptable for women. And as a historical writer, I can confirm, you don’t spend long in the past without comparing it to the present.
In a modern world it is easy to set aside how history forms our perceptions. The 21st century mindset is to invent ourselves entirely from scratch – we like to believe we can have whatever we want and be whatever we want to be – and that where we come from is not as important as where we are going. While modern psychology encourages individuals to examine their personal history most people never consider the influence of their broader cultural roots – particularly if they are white and European.
I’ve been fascinated for years by the Overton Window, otherwise known as the window of discourse. It encapsulates the spectrum of ideas that public opinion will accept. In my lifetime there must have been thousands of shifts. I was brought up in the 1970s when women still left work when they got married. On both a personal and political level, I find it exciting that ideas change though it is my observation that in most cases, change is only possible because someone did something that seemed shocking at the time.
The Overton Window can shift with astonishing speed. Think how quickly smoking in a public place became unthinkable after the EU ban came into force in the UK in 2007. Other times it moves slowly. The first call for women MPs at Westminster was in 1746. It took 173 years before the first took her seat, but the Overton Window did shift. Eventually.
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 lady wouldn’t dream of riding anything other than sidesaddle, for example. To ride astride a horse was considered simply too sexual. Likewise, matters of dress were key. In our era of modern feminism, it is difficult to understand (and very easy to laugh at) the horror with which women wearing trousers were viewed. Illustrating the point, in comical 1920s fashion is the story of Mrs Aubrey Le Blonde the first president of the Women’s Alpine Club who, climbing in Switzerland, left her skirt by mistake up the Zinal Rothorne and made the decision to climb the mountain a second time to retrieve it rather than return to Zermat in (gasp!) trousers. Half a century later when Yves Saint Laurent launched his ‘Le Smoking’ collection of women’s eveningwear based on traditional male dinner suits, the fashion world was scandalized.
As an historical novelist I have to inhabit this headspace to create believable historical characters that sit within their setting. For most people I know such dilemmas seem comical – as if previous generations were stupid for not thinking what we think. I often wonder which aspects of our behaviour our great grandchildren will find inexplicable.
My guess is that it will be a longstanding breach of female etiquette - the taboo of female toplessness. Most present-day women wouldn’t dream of going topless in their day to day lives. For most of us it is entirely unacceptable behaviour. To bear your breasts publicly suggests easy virtue and worse, in the UK, baring all remains a class issue. In 2012 when the Duchess of Cambridge was snapped on holiday by a paparazzo, the UK press went wild not only because it was an intrusion into her privacy but also because the pictures showed her sunbathing topless. The snaps were banned in Britain although they appeared in France (where toplessness is less of an issue for woman). The Duchess after all was a British lady and there is little more shaming for a lady in this country than the public display of her nipples. This is not the only matter in which our near neighbour provides a useful contrasting view on sexual liberation – just look at the nonchalant manner in which the French public and press dealt with Francois Holland’s famous extramarital affair. A gallic shrug covered it, pretty much.
French perception over the centuries has always been different from ours. While Oliver Cromwell buttoned up every aspect of British society from the celebration of Christmas to the celebration of female flesh, when Charles II returned to the throne in 1661 he brought with him a liberal attitude to female behaviour from the French court. Necklines across the country quickly plummeted so far that lady’s dressing table sets of the day include pots of carnelian nipple make up. Nell Gwynn, 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. 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. Samuel Pepys had several spontaneous orgasms when he sighted a skirt hoisted only an inch or two above where it ought to have been.
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. The Queen was not a proponent of women’s rights and eschewed the early suffragette movement although she was liberal in some matters – notably the use of laudanum and cannabis, particularly to alleviate period pain. That said, some Victorian women did succeed in stretching the boundaries of what was acceptable though I have yet to find a single example of one who retained any kind of respect while going Tops Off.
Toplessness continues a hot issue. There is a mounting campaign to ban glamour models from Page 3 (recently given a boost when Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sun, declared -ironically given, well, history - that the concept might be ‘old-fashioned’’) In addition, in our digital age the issue has been taken onto social media platforms with some providers allowing women to post topless photos while others use technology that searches for skin tone in order to censor it. A couple of years ago, Bruce Willis’s daughter walked topless through New York posting photographs of herself on Twitter and using the hashtag #freethenipple. Pussy Riot are more often topless than clothed in between their terms in Moscow’s jails. The Femen group have staged numerous topless demonstrations in favour of various political causes. Toplessness has become by turns a protest, a right and call for sexual freedom. Alongside this, there is an ongoing movement to make public breastfeeding acceptable and the Overton Window has perhaps shifted on this matter most of all.
One definition of modern day feminism is a woman having control over her own body. While some Victorian restrictions on female behavior have been removed (not least the taboo of sex before marriage) female toplessness persists as an unacceptable concept for respectable women in this country 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 greater shift in what we consider culturally acceptable –one that perhaps seems as shocking today as a woman wearing trousers was in the early 20th century.
A couple of years ago 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 was spineless and further that it 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 outside the Festival Spiegeltent 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. That, last of all, made me feel change is in the air. I hope the Overton window is moving.