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If you watch TV shows like Hulu’s Harlots or have browsed even a few early modern European and early American paintings, you might get the impression that we missed out on an era of NBD boobs. Sure, the thinking goes, if a time machine took you back to 1750s Europe, you might need to get laced into a corset each day, but at least you could let the tops of your boobs experience the wonders of early Industrial Revolution pollution minus today’s catcalling assholes and people judging your gracious display of cleavage. Sorry to ruin the Outlander daydream, but that’s just not true.
Part of the problem for women in the English-speaking world was that 18th-century low-neckline styles that featured boobs squishing out the top of a corset and bodice were associated with France. The French were the originators of the low and open chest look for ladies who did not engage in sex work. France and England were rivals in the early modern period due to disputes over royal inheritances, religion, competition for colonies, and holdover grievances. The open neckline style came to England as a sexual, Catholic, and foreign fashion that caused it to get hate in northern, largely Protestant Europe. The same dress that might be considered perfectly fashionable and fine on a lady at the French court might raise eyebrows in London.
Yet as a self-portrait by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (France, 1785) shows, not even all women in France wore the open-neck style without modifications. Labille-Guiard paints herself with the fashionable exposed poitrine, while her two pupils wear dresses of similar cut, but accessorized with gauzy kerchiefs that provide some coverage. Women throughout Europe and their New World colonies used a variety of accessories, such as ribbons, bows, kerchiefs, tuckers, lace, jackets, and shrugs, that were worn over or tucked into the bodice to provide coverage, warmth, and protection from the sun. Accessories could also help counteract physics and keep boobs lodged in one’s dress while leaning over in the course of working; plenty of bawdy paintings and engravings show women popping out of their dresses (to some extent, it’s a porny trope, but one grounded in some sort of reality).
That said, women didn’t always want to wear covers. The Guardian complained in 1713 that ladies weren’t wearing the tucker as much anymore, leaving their necks and bosom tops uncovered. Author Joseph Addison complained that dresses had exposed women so much that “the Neck of a fine Woman at present take in almost half the Body.” Later, publications advised against women “unmasking their beauties.” Susan J. Vincent writes in The Anatomy of Fashion that correspondents in the 18th century wrote that “otherwise polite, genteel women looked like common prostitutes.” For many women, the neckline depended on the time of day: Even in France, the low and open neck was reserved for evening gowns while daytime dress remained more covered.
Little girls wore the same styles as their mothers, but that had little to do with any sort of lack of sexual ideas about breasts and everything to do with the fact that children tended to be dressed as tiny adults in miniature adult clothing. Whether for adults or for children, fashions shown in paintings did not necessarily reflect the reality of everyday wear — you’ve probably never stepped out in a meat dress, but someone in our lifetime has.
The French Revolution, famous for lopping off heads, had some far-out ideas regarding boobs. In 1793, artist Jacques-Louis David constructed a “Fountain of Regeneration” in Paris on the site where the Bastille prison once stood. The fountain looked like Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility. Eighty-six male deputies from the National Convention drank water “joyfully” from the statue’s spouting breasts — the idea was that the water stood in for milk that would symbolically renew the nation following royal rule and the earlier part of the French Revolution.
When people try to tell you that boobs were seen as normal, natural, and not sexualized in the past, please show them to the statue of Isis shooting water out of her tits to renew her 86 large adult revolutionary sons.
There was never a time in early modern Europe when an actual breast wasn’t judged against some platonic tit ideal. Smaller breasts have been considered sexually attractive more frequently and for longer periods of time in the West. Larger breasts were considered to be closer to those of animals and were associated with the lower classes or racial groups considered unattractive. Early biologists, who would develop ideas that became modern scientific racism, even studied differences in breast shape and size between different ethnic groups, elevating some groups over others due to the degree to which the observed breasts adhered to the European standard of beauty. Keep in mind, after all, that the word “mammal” comes from the word for “breast” — Swedish biologist Linnaeus and friends were so hung up on tits that they named a whole chunk of the animal kingdom for boobs rather than other shared characteristics such as our three inner ear bones.
Despite the relatively open-neck cut popular in the 18th century, complete exposure of breasts in portraiture was acceptable for only two groups of women: the scandalous, such as mistresses and prostitutes, and the pure: breastfeeding mothers or queens, seen as mothers of the nation. Other women, such as mothers who weren’t nursing at the moment, single women and girls, and women past childbearing age — the majority of women — were expected to be at least covered from the nipples down. The Enlightenment of the 18th century brought new ideas about Isis feeding legislators, and also the natural role for the female breast. Biologists such as Linnaeus and philosophers of nature such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau popularized the idea of the woman as a nurturer, simultaneously making breastfeeding one’s own children natural and fashionable. Before then, mothers of all classes except the lowest tended to send their children to be breastfed by poorer women.
While TV shows about the mid-18th century tend to serve up cleavage galore, the height of boob and shoulder exposure came in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The fashion of the time referenced both neoclassical ideals and the new biological ideal by emphasizing natural, flowing gowns while moving the waist very high, immediately under the breasts. Thanks to the use of light fabrics, breasts became easily available to both nursing babies and lecherous observers. Movies such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma may seem to feature fairly modest fashion to us, but the exposed shoulders and boob-on-a-shelf eveningwear looks were considered kinda scandalous — yet fashionable — at the time. No less than Jane Austen herself described a woman she saw as a “short girl with a broad nose & wide mouth, fashionable dress, & exposed bosom.”
Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Breast, argues that in the early 19th century, male thinkers decided that a nursing mother’s breasts were both erotic and meant for nourishing the future male citizens of the nation. In the Renaissance, if you whipped out a boob to feed your own child, you would be criticized for subjecting your bosom to animal-like practices when you should be using a wet nurse. By the early 19th century, the same action would be applauded for exemplifying the natural role of the mother — as long as nursing was done in private, since any complete exposure of the breast for any reason was now considered sexually provocative. At the same time, higher necklines emerged in the 19th century (although they moved up and down quite a bit). While one might look at the fashions of the Victorian era, for example, and think that women were fairly covered, people at the time stayed scandalized because the corsetry and bustles of the era gave women body shapes that were considered extremely sexy — even if they skipped showing skin in some periods.
As Western civilization turned toward modernity, real women’s real breasts were shoved into the domestic sphere of the home. People in the West have been judgy and gross when it comes to breasts for at least the last 500 years. Women always got shit for their tits. The only women able to show their breasts in public without derision or lecherous looks were symbolic figures like Isis, nourishing thirsty male legislators and serving the interests of the state.