Love & Sex

A Visual History of Public Nudity Through the Ages

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From bare ankles to bare chests.

Summer is fast approaching, which means that, inevitably, we will all be barraged with bare limbs, exposed midriffs, and ample cleavage for the next four months. The Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society, a band of women who read completely topless in public, is already camped out in Central Park and accepting new members. To commemorate the coming of copious warm-weather nudity, let's take a look back on the complicated, and sometimes, hypocritical history of bare skin through the ages.

The following contains images that might be NSFW.

15th Century


Leading up to the 15th century, going topless was not that rare for women. Leg show, on the other hand, was much more devious. Breasts, in this time period and up to the Renaissance, were mainly portrayed as a source for food for children, and sometimes were a sign of wealth and social status. Paintings of breastfeeding mothers and madonnas, inspired by classical Greek styles, were all the rage. Agnès Sorel, mistress of Charles VII of France, was known for her gowns which exposed one or both breasts. 

19th Century


Many indigenous people and Native American tribes do not consider toplessness to be sexualized. Women were free to go bare-breasted in public. In this photograph from 1870, two Wichita Native Americans are dressed for summer. Toplessness only became inappropriate in a large majority of regions — North America, Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Pacific Islands — with both the Muslim and Christian expansion and the influence of missionaries. In a survey of over 190 societies, researchers found very few cultures associate exposed breasts with indecency. For centuries across the globe, boobs were no big deal.



A woman's bathing suit in 1900 left little to be suntanned. The get-up included a long knitted dress, with tights, and sandals. In 1907, the above pictured Australian underwater ballerina, Annette Kellerman, was arrested for donning this racy swimsuit that exposed her legs, arms, and neck. At the time, her contemporaries were wearing swimsuits that had belts, cuffs, and collars. It wasn't until the 1930s that Kellerman's beach style became fully acceptable.



Men didn't miss out on some of the puritanical nudity standards, either. At the turn of the century, men were not allowed to bare their chests while swimming. 



In 1910, the knee — once thought to be a risque joint — became acceptable enough to be shown in public. Skirts rose, and of course, bathing suit designers acted accordingly.



In the 1920s, "decency" measurements took place on beaches to ensure women were not exposing too much upper leg in their bathing suits (it's only 90 degrees in Florida!). The ruling was that suits not be six inches over the knee.



In 1934, four men in Coney Island were arrested and fined one dollar each for baring their chests. 1934 also saw the first male chest ever exposed in mainstream film. Clark Gable's torso caused a stir when it was revealed in It Happened One Night. Legend has it that the sale of undershirts suffered due to the sheer beauty of Gable's bare chest. We doubt this. Men finally won their right to go topless in the United States in 1937 in New York. The reason was mainly economical, because if parks departments had to provide swimsuits, which they sometimes did, it was cheaper to provide just the trunks.



Bikinis were born on July 5, 1956 when mechanical engineer Louis Réard noticed women rolling up their swimsuits on the beaches of San Tropez to tan. He decided to make a bikini out of merely four triangles of fabric, complete with a newspaper pattern. The only woman he could find to model it was a nude dancer from the Casino de Paris. When the bikini premiered, it was the navel heard round the world.



The first topless bikini was introduced in 1964 by NYC designer Rudi Geinrich, originally published in Go See magazine. Geinrich was an avant-garde swimwear designer who earned his fame with his unique '"monokini." Though French fashions of the era may have permitted the topless bikini, they were banned on U.S. beaches.



In 1986, the Rochester Topfree Seven made history by exposing their aerolas in a New York park and were promptly arrested. In 1992, the charges were appealed and dropped.



The Rochester Seven paved the way for the rest of bare chests in NY. It was then that toplessness became legal for women in New York state. It might have taken five centuries, but bare chests were no longer indecent, as long as they're not being used for advertising or commercial purposes.



In 2008, a Ukrainian feminist protest group, FEMEN, gained notoriety when it staged topless protests of sex tourism and other social injustices. "Bare breasts are our weapons," says FEMEN, noting that their protests get more media attention when tops come off. Protestors in Egypt and Iran have followed suit, taking to toplessness to speak out about issues that face women internationally.



Only 14 states in the United States have it on the books that female toplessness is explicitly illegal. These no-boobs-allowed states are: Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Mississippi, Michigan, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Nope, not even Utah.

Image via Wikipedia.