It’s easy to imagine that clothing was more conservative in the past. The twentieth century began with women wearing rigid corsets and blouses tightly buttoned to the neck. However, this was not always the case. For much of the 16th – 19th centuries, low cut bodices were in fashion. During the time of Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), and in no small part due to her own fashion preferences, French court was swimming in cleavage.
Women’s blouses were cut low enough to hint at the presence of an areola if not completely expose a nipple or two. Décolleté (plunging neckline) dresses were designed so that ‘accidental’ glimpses were inevitable.
Quite the spectacle!
A Different Time
But wait, let’s blow your mind even more!
Perceptions of nudity were very different in Marie Antoinette’s time. Society today fetishizes the female body and finds nipple exposure shameful and scandalous and an explicit message of sexual promiscuity. In contrast, 18th century Europeans saw it very differently. Exposed breasts conveyed a message of high social standing and purity.
Young wealthy women would begin exposing their breasts at around 15 years old. This coincided with their transition from child to adult garments. During the eras of extreme décolletage (1400-1780) if a young unmarried woman did not do this, it would have implied she was nursing children and thus impure. To complete their looks, court women would wear powdered wigs. These creations rose up to three feet high and were bedecked with everything imaginable.
Despite how common breast exposure was at the time, it is somewhat difficult to find imagery like this. Western art has had approximately two hundred years of covering up private parts in art (“fig leafing”), which is far from over. Just imagine the spectacle today if a historical costume drama tv series or movie featured women exposing their breasts without shame because it was historically accurate to the time and not only for sex scenes.
Bonus trivia: There is a legend that coupe glasses, which today are used for various mixed drinks, were modeled from Marie Antoinette’s (left) breast. It isn’t true however. The coupe glass was designed a hundred years before to serve champagne and sparkling wines.