In the 2018 US Open, French player Alizé Cornet was penalised for removing her shirt, revealing a momentary flash of sports bra after realising her top was on back-to-front. In December 2018, Tumblr announced a blanket ban on pornographic content, including, specifically, any content displaying ‘female-presenting nipples’. Although the prospect of ditching one’s shirt and merrily heading off into town isn’t necessarily my idea of a comfortable day out, the controversies surrounding female toplessness certainly beg the question – just why is the female nipple quite so offensive?
Delve through the Instagram of just about any former Love Island contestant and you’ll be sure to find at least a few snaps where a faint outline of nipple can be detected (and this isn’t limited to the women: ‘cool Paul’ loves a tight t-shirt). On the men’s posts nobody seems to bat an eyelid. On the women’s? One uncovers hordes of comments reading some variation of ‘bit nippy love? *Insert wandering eyes emoji.*’
Now, more than ever, increasing numbers of women are giving ye ol’ trusty middle-finger to the notion that bras are a compulsory element for any outfit. For many, they are a means of practicality and comfort – for others, they are a needless inconvenience. Celebrities and mere mortals alike have continued to declare themselves in favour of ‘freeing the nipple,’ a campaign born out of Lina Esco’s 2014 film (entitled, as you could probably guess, Free the Nipple). So where does fashion, an industry that’s entirely centred around its relationship to the human body, come into play in all of this?
Put simply, fashion has always been a huge fan of boobs. The 90s saw a young Kate Moss posing fresh-faced and bare-skinned, smoking on the beach – more recently, Kendall Jenner took to Marc Jacobs’ runway in a sheer top that left little to the imagination. Predictably, the following day saw uproar across the Internet, partly in response to the very presence of nipples on the runway, and partly in light of Jenner’s adolescent age. Plenty of other labels regularly make nipples a focal point of their fashion shows: Anthony Vaccarallo’s inaugural Saint Laurent collection and Jean Paul Gaultier’s AW18 #freethenipple show in Paris are but two examples.
Could it be that fashion is normalising exposure to the female body? The whole purpose of the runway is to inspire and predict trends before they occur in the ‘real’ world; in dissociating breasts from a pornographic or erotic context and resituating them within daily fashion, arguably designers can help to dismantle the idea that female toplessness holds exclusively sexual connotations. This movement away from conservative fashion is already evident in consumer behaviour: underwear has become outerwear, sheer tops are no longer feared, and one underlying message is clear – the way a woman dresses need not be a marker of her behaviour or worth.
Equally, we must recognise the darker side of designers’ fascinations with the female body. Upon a simple Google search of ‘kendall jenner nipple controversy’ (top-notch investigative journalism), I was met with news that I hadn’t banked on: the fact that women across the globe are getting plastic surgery to make their nipples look like Kendall’s. It’s easy to say that KenJen’s statement look can inspire boldness in other women to do the same. But such a simplification ignores the fact that Kendall embodies what is deemed ‘conventional’ beauty. The glorification of her body does nothing to honour the average woman, who in reality encompasses a whole range of different sizes, races and ages. As is so often the case with the fashion industry, displaying only a single body type can in fact do far more harm than good, and cause young girls (and even grown women) anxiety over not fulfilling conventional standards of beauty.
Kate Moss has spoken out about her early experiences in the modeling industry, revealing that she often felt uncomfortable when being asked to pose topless. Whilst photos display a carefree, seemingly liberated young woman, the bitter reality is that she felt peer-pressured into nudity in order to be successful. With recent allegations of sexual misconduct filed against photographers such as Mario Testino and Bruce Weber, Moss is certainly not alone in her experiences.
Looking to the future, then, is it naïve to believe that the fashion industry can ever remedy the issue of female objectification? Whilst breaking taboos is admirable and ought to be celebrated, let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is just one tiny part of a whole host of gender-related issues affecting both men and women in the world. Moreover, designers have a responsibility to think about the wider implications of what they choose to cast a spotlight on. By all means, let’s support any movements towards a more a liberated, open-minded runway. But if you’re looking for real, concrete examples of female empowerment, however, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere for now.