It’s appropriate that all this talk of overexposure started with a Kardashian. Back in February, I took my seat at Marc Jacobs’ cloud-swathed fall show. It was here that Kendall Jenner—reality star, “novelist” and half-sister to polarizing provocateur Kim—took her first steps toward supermodel-dom in a sheer ribbed top that put her perky 18-year-old breasts on full display. The onslaught of tweets and TMZ headlines quickly turned into covers (of Teen Vogue and Love magazine) and campaigns (Givenchy’s latest). In keeping with the Kardashian playbook, Jenner is doing her best to make a career out of the controversy.
Now, nudity is not new in fashion. Designers have been using transparencies to provoke long before boys in my Grade 7 class started watching Fashion Television “just for the boobs.” But there was something about the current season’s parsing at Barbara Casasola, Gareth Pugh, Anthony Vaccarello—even in the ladylike iterations at Erdem—that felt different, as though designers weren’t so much using see-through fabrics for theatrical effect as making propositions for real-life wear. The boob was back, but while Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl flash 10 years ago caused controversy, Jenner’s unapologetic slip is driving acceptance—and fuelling a hot-button topic.
Months later, after Rihanna’s topless cover for artsy French mag Lui got her banned from Instagram, she wore a completely sheer, shimmery Adam Selman gown to the CFDA Awards as if in protest. With her nipples winking through all that Swarovski crystal, the world collectively clutched its pearls.
Which got my head spinning. Why haven’t we moved past this? Nipple issues tend to rise and fall in fashion and pop culture: free love in the ’60s and ’70s exposed so much below the collarbone that the sight of a nipple would barely elicit a yawn at Woodstock or Studio 54. Similarly, fashion photography in the ’70s and ’80s, particularly by Helmut Newton, exposed them in an artful (if fetishistic) light. And it was back in 1991 that, after Gwen Jacob, then a University of Guelph student, challenged topfreedom (the legalese term for toplessness) as an indecent act in Ontario, it became legal for women to go bare-breasted in Canada.
To me, the idea that this little flash of skin was still taboo in 2014 seemed backwards and oddly puritanical. I decided to broach the subject with Lina Esco, a filmmaker who turned the censorship issues around her fictional comedy, Free the Nipple, about a group of girls fighting topfreedom laws in the United States, into a tits-out movement. She started the Free the Nipple campaign with the intent of promoting the movie after production and distribution halted due to investors, producers and the Motion Picture Association of America balking at the title alone (after four years in the making, it’s finally expecting distribution later this year). It has since taken on a life of its own, with Scout Willis, Lena Dunham, Liv Tyler and Cara Delevingne advocating nipple freedom on social media platforms and beyond. (Willis, for her part, roamed the streets of New York City topless, innocently inspecting flowers at a local bodega. Honestly, I’ve seen sexier posturing from puppies.)
“I just think the nipple has never been exposed in the sense that women own it because they want to—it’s always been shown for other reasons,” Esco explains to me over the phone from Los Angeles. “You can only see the nipple in a magazine in your own room. You can only watch it on your own computer while you’re masturbating. So in that sense, the moment a woman just owns it and has no shame, there’s a bigger power.”
Esco is quick to point out society’s sexist double standards, especially when it comes to censorship on social media, where we’ve all been guilty of overexposure. (A few years ago, a friend of mine actually posted his wife’s C-section in all its gory, straight-out-of-Alien glory on Facebook.) Meanwhile, Kate Upton’s buoyant double-Ds went viral when they bounced around in zero gravity for Sports Illustrated’s last swimsuit issue, but the moment Rihanna takes pride in a tasteful topless shot, she gets booted off the Internet.
“You can show beheading on Facebook, you can show guns on Instagram, but you cannot show a nipple,” Esco says. However, she has had some small victories: partly due to Free the Nipple, Facebook reversed its policy on nudity to allow women to post breast-feeding photos—one small step closer to taking the nipple beyond the runway.
When fully uncovered, the nipple issue really comes down to equality over fashion statement. “We are evolving sexually as a civilization and as a species, and I think part of that is making the nipple OK, because it’s something that both sexes have,” says Carly Stojsic, a freelance trend forecaster. Indeed, men waged a similar war on toplessness in the U.S. in the early 1900s, when it was illegal. Going shirtless was considered racy and lewd, so much so that guys had to wear one-piece bathing suits to the beach, a far cry from today’s bare-chested McConaughaissance. The law was eventually overturned in 1936; decades later, it seems ludicrous that women haven’t achieved the same unsexualized freedom. For Esco, the movement comes as a wake-up call. “I think women are tired of being oppressed,” she tells me. Esco calls out female role models from Hillary Clinton to Princess Merida, the heroine in Brave—the first Disney/Pixar film to focus on a girl’s quest for independence (as opposed to say, Prince Charming)—for making headway in the gender power struggle. (Yeah, this may seem like a jump, but the top-line message is still about empowerment.) Similarly, she adds, “a woman who just goes topless, or wears a sheer shirt, doesn’t have a care in the world. That is a powerful woman to me. The first time I went topless in public was when I shot a scene in Times Square [for the film], and it freaked me out. But the moment I did it was like a personal transformation. It’s a big, powerful feeling when you own your body.”
So here’s a confession: I’ve never been nude on a beach. (I’ve never even sent a sext.) The closest I came to exposing myself in public was at a friend’s wedding in Croatia last summer, when I went skinny-dipping in the middle of the night with 20 friends. I remember diving into the Adriatic Sea completely naked, giggling, feeling liberated. There was nothing remotely sexual about it.
Obviously, the next logical step in my areola awakening was to appear near-topless in a national magazine. Cut to a tony bistro in Toronto’s Distillery District in the early afternoon, where I slid into a lacy Burberry Prorsum dress that left little to the imagination and posed for the photo that accompanies this article. I worried I resembled a Victorian porn star, but that feeling quickly dissipated, as did my modesty when I unleashed my high beams on approximately 40 sous-chefs and line cooks. And you know what? They looked, but they also turned away moments later and went back to their business.
Then I realized, just as Esco had said, that taking charge of my body and presenting it in a way that I wanted wasn’t lewd or shameful or exploitative. Instead, in that moment, it felt mine and mine alone. I thought back to Jenner, whose flash—intentional or otherwise—carved out a path to fame, one that led away from her ubiquitous reality TV family and toward a career of her own. Perhaps there’s a lesson in our own growing acceptance of exposing the nipple off the runway, too: #freethenipple, #freeyourself.
Love on Top: Tiyana’s Nipple Heroes Through the Ages
Presumed Portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters, c. 1594
In medievally times, a creepy-intimate sisterly pinch signalled pregnancy.
Jane Birkin, 1969
Her carefree, completely sheer frock remains the standard-bearer for flashing done right.
Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls, 1995
What saves the wooden, writhing portrayal of Nomi Malone? Berkley’s flawless, rouged-up nipples in spangly wardrobe choices.
Janet Jackson, 2004
Thank Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl slip for the term “wardrobe malfunction” entering the lexicon.
Kendall Jenner, 2014
It took real balls for someone so ubiquitous to bring out the boobs for her runway debut at Marc Jacobs.