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Two Tahitian Women, (1899), by Paul Gauguin
This article deals with topless females. For males, see barechestedness.

Toplessness is the state in which a female has her breasts uncovered, with her areolae and nipples visible, usually in a public space. The adjective topless may refer to a woman who appears in public, poses, or performs with her breasts exposed (a "topless model"); to an activity or performance that involves exposing the breasts ("topless sunbathing"; "topless dancing"); to an artistic, photographic, or filmic representation of a woman with her breasts uncovered (a "topless photograph"); to a place where female toplessness is tolerated or expected (a "topless beach"; a "topless bar"); or to a garment designed to reveal the breasts and the nipples (a "topless swimsuit").


In Society

Two Wichita Native Americans in summer dress. Photographed by William S. Soule, 1870.

In many societies today, concealment of the lower portion of the breasts, including the nipples and areolae, is a cultural norm of female modesty from adolescence onward. However, considerable variance has existed in attitudes toward toplessness, both across cultures and through history.

Traditional cultures of North America, Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islands considered female toplessness normal and acceptable, at least until the arrival of Christian missionaries,[1] and it continues to be the norm in many indigenous cultures today.

Toplessness was also the norm in various Asian cultures before Muslim expansion in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.[2] In most Middle Eastern countries, toplessness has not been socially accepted since at least the early beginning of Islam (7th century), because of Islamic standards for female modesty. However, toplessness was the norm in earlier cultures within Arabia, Egypt, Assyria and Mesopotamia. Tunisia is an exception among Arabic states, allowing foreign tourists to swim topless on private beaches.[3]

Cultural and legal attitudes in the West


Agnès Sorel, known to appear topless in the French court, was the model for Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, by Jean Fouquet (c.1450)

In many European societies between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century, exposed breasts were more acceptable than it is today, since a woman's bared legs, ankles, or shoulders were considered to be more risqué than her exposed breasts.[4]

Because aristocratic and upper-class women could maintain youthful-looking bosoms by employing wet nurses to breastfeed their children,[5] the exposed breast could even be a status symbol, and was often displayed as a sign of beauty, wealth, or social position. The bared breast was even seen to invoke associations with the nude sculptures of classical Greece that were exerting a huge influence on art, sculpture, and architecture of the period.[6]

Breast-baring female fashions have been traced to fifteenth-century courtesan Agnès Sorel, mistress to Charles VII of France, whose gowns in the French court sometimes exposed one or both of her breasts. (Jean Fouquet's portrayal of the Virgin Mary with her left breast uncovered is believed to have taken Sorel as a model.) During the sixteenth century, women's fashions displaying their breasts were common in society, from Queens to common prostitutes, and emulated by all classes.[7]

Similar fashions became popular in England during the seventeenth century when they were worn by Queen Mary II and by Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I of England, for whom architect Inigo Jones designed a masque costume that fully revealed both of her breasts.[6]

From the Victorian period onward, however, social attitudes shifted to mandate the concealment of women's breasts. Although a degree of liberalization took place in the later twentieth century, contemporary Western societies still generally take a somewhat unfavorable view of toplessness, with the very term "topless" often carrying the connotation of sexual licentiousness or deliberate defiance of cultural taboo.

Contemporary view

In contemporary society, the extent to which a woman may expose her breasts depends on social and cultural context. Women's swimsuits and bikinis commonly reveal the tops and sides of the breasts. Displaying cleavage is considered permissible in many settings, and is even a sign of elegance and sophistication on many formal social occasions, but it may be prohibited by dress codes in settings such as workplaces and schools, where sexualized displays of the female breast may be considered inappropriate. Showing the nipples or areolae is almost always considered partial nudity and sex appealing. Women and girls may consider toplessness acceptable in gender segregated areas such as changing rooms and dormitories, and toplessness may be permitted in specific mixed-gender zones such as topless beaches (see below), but full breast exposure outside of these contexts is mostly confined to occasional acts of exhibitionism or protest.

During a short period in 1964, "topless" dress designs appeared at fashion shows, but those who wore the dresses in public found themselves on indecency charges.[8] However, toplessness has come to feature in contemporary haute couture fashion shows.

Some cultures have even begun to apply the social interdiction on female toplessness to prepubescent and even infant girls, who may be dressed by their parents in bikinis or one-piece swimsuits on beaches and at water parks. This trend toward covering the female nipple from infancy onward is particularly noticeable in the United States and the Middle-East, but is much less common in Europe[9] and Latin America.


An anti-war demonstration in Washington, 24 September 2005

Legally, many Western jurisdictions consider the public display of women's breasts to be indecent exposure, because the exposed nipples are sex appealing and are indecent. However, the activist topfreedom movement has been successful in some instances in persuading courts to overturn such laws on the basis of sex discrimination, arguing that a woman should be free to expose her chest in any context in which a man can expose his. Successful cases include the District of Columbia 1986, New York State 1992, Columbus, OH 1995, Ontario Canada 1996, Moscow Idaho 1998, and Maine 1998.[10] Campaigns promoting the health benefits of breast milk have also convinced many jurisdictions to make exceptions to the law for public breastfeeding.[11] In the United States, for instance, a federal law enacted in 1999[12] specifically provides that "a woman may breastfeed her child at any location in a Federal building or on Federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location."

Since many indigenous, non-Western cultures consider it culturally normal for both men and women to go without clothing on their torsos, and since female toplessness can also constitute an important aspect of indigenous cultural celebrations, cross-cultural and legal conflict has taken place on the issue. Such an instance occurred when Australian police banned members of the Papunya community in 2004 from using a public park in the city of Alice Springs to practice a traditional Aboriginal dance that featured topless women.[13], a US organization, claims that women have the same constitutional right to be bare chested in public places as men. They further claim constitutional equality between men and women on being topless in public. In 2009, they used August 26, (Women's Equality Day) as a day of national protest.[14]

Topless beaches

Original design of the monokini by Rudi Gernreich
A topless sunbather in Palm springs, California

In 1964, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich designed the first topless swimsuit, which he called the "monokini" in the US.[15] The design was first printed by Look magazine.[16] Gernreich's monokini looked like a one-piece swimsuit suspended from two halter straps in the cleavage of bared breasts. It had only two small straps over the shoulders, leaving the breasts bare. Despite the reaction of fashion critics and church officials, shoppers purchased the monokini in record numbers that summer, though very few monokinis were ever worn in public. By the end of the season, Gernreich had sold 3000 swimsuits at $24 a piece, which meant a tidy profit for such a minuscule amount of fabric.[17] The novelty of the design caught significant attention, and San Francisco Chronicle featured a woman in a monokini with her exposed breasts clearly visible on its first page.[18] A photograph of Peggy Moffitt, the famous model for the suit, appeared in Women's Wear Daily, Life and numerous other publications.[19]

The topless swimsuit was not very successful in the USA, where people have never accepted it for the beach.[20] The Soviet government called it "barbarism" and a sign of social "decay". The pope called it immoral. The New York City Police Department was strictly instructed to arrest any woman wearing a swimsuit by the commissioner of parks.[18] In Chicago, a 19-year-old woman was fined US$100 for wearing a topless swimsuit on a public beach.[18] Copious coverage of the event helped to send the image of exposed breasts across the world. Women's clubs and the church were particularly active in their condemnation. In Italy and Spain, the church warned against the topless fashion.[21] Even in Saint-Tropez, French Riviera, it was banned.[18] Jean-Luc Godard, a founding mover of French New Wave cinema, incorporated a topless swimsuit footage shot in Riviera into his film A Married Woman, but it was edited out by the censors.[22]

In the mid-1960s, led by movie starlets and models in Cannes and Saint-Tropez, women began to remove their bikini tops while sunbathing on the beaches of the French Riviera. The practice slowly spread to other Western countries, many of which now allow topless sunbathing on some or all of their beaches, either through legal statute or by custom. A topless beach differs from a nude beach or naturist beach in that beach goers of both sexes are required to keep their genital area covered, although females have the option to remove their tops without fearing legal prosecution or official harassment. Women who sunbathe topless do not necessarily consider themselves to be nudists.

Women posing for a camera on beach in Saint Martin

Beaches permitting topless swimming and sunbathing are especially common in Europe and Australia, where the practice has mostly become uncontroversial. When Australian researchers conducted an academic study in the mid-1990s, they found that 88 percent of Australian university students, of both genders, considered it socially acceptable for women to remove their tops on public beaches—even though the majority disapproved of women exposing their breasts in other contexts, such as public parks.[23] In the United States, which is generally less tolerant of female toplessness than Europe or Australia, toplessness is permitted in Washington, D.C., New York, Hawaii, Maine, Ohio, and Texas whereever a man is permitted to go without a top.[24][25]. However, women in Texas appearing topless in public are typically charged under public nuisance laws.[26] Nude sunbathing is only permitted at a few specifically designated beaches such as South Beach in Miami, Florida and Black's Beach in San Diego, California and clothing optional and nudist resorts.


In many European societies as a result of the Renaissance many artists were strongly influenced by classical Greek styles and culture.[6] As a result, images of nude and semi-nude subjects in many forms proliferated in art and sculpture.

During the Victorian era, French Orientalist painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme presented an idealized depiction of female toplessness in Muslim harem baths,[27] while Eugène Delacroix, a French romantic artist, invoked images of liberty as a topless woman.

From the mid-nineteenth century onward, there was a shift in social attitudes in the West, especially in the United States, towards the prohibition of the exposure of women's breasts. This has been reflected to a more limited degree in the arts.

Entertainment and media

In the 1920s, the Hays Code brought an end to nudity in all its forms, including toplessness, in Hollywood films. Social and official attitudes have eased since those days and women now appear topless in mainstream cinema, although usually somewhat briefly. A notable exception was Rapa Nui which featured repeated scenes of bare-breasted native women. Film critic Roger Ebert said the producers got away with ongoing toplessness because of the women's brown skin:

Rapa Nui" slips through the National Geographic Loophole. This is the Hollywood convention which teaches us that brown breasts are not as sinful as white ones, and so while it may be evil to gaze upon a blond Playboy centerfold and feel lust in our hearts, it is educational to watch Polynesian maidens frolicking topless in the surf. This isn't sex; it's geography.[28]

Some prominent actresses have used body doubles to avoid exposing their own breasts on film.[29][30] However, the French have traditionally been more relaxed with toplessness and they continued to use topless dancers and actresses during the 1910s and beyond in musical theater and cinema. Toplessness as a form of entertainment has survived to this day at the Folies Bergère and the Moulin Rouge.

In many Western cultures today, women are regularly featured topless in magazines, calendars, and other print media. In the United Kingdom, following a tradition established by the British newspaper The Sun in 1970, several mainstream tabloid newspapers feature topless female models on their third page, known as Page Three girls. Although images of topless women are increasingly prevalent in Western magazines and film, images of topless girls under the age of eighteen years are controversial, and are potentially considered child pornography in some jurisdictions. Photographers such as Jock Sturges and Bill Henson, whose work regularly features images of topless adolescent girls, have been prosecuted or been embroiled in controversy because of these depictions.[31] Even insinuated toplessness by minors can cause controversy.

Women are also at times employed in adult-only venues to perform or pose topless in forms of commercial erotic entertainment. Such venues can range from downmarket strip clubs to upmarket cabarets, such as the Moulin Rouge. Topless entertainment may also include competitions such as wet T-shirt contests in which women display their breasts through translucent wet fabric—and may end up removing their T-shirts before the audience.

Female toplessness has also become a feature of carnivals such as Mardi Gras, notably in New Orleans, during which women "flash" (briefly expose) their breasts in return for strings of plastic beads; and Carnaval of Rio de Janeiro where floats occasionally feature topless women.


  1. ^ Nida, Eugene A. (1954). "Customs and Cultures, Anthropology for Christian Missions". New York: Harper & Brothers.  
  2. ^ Fernando, Romesh (15 November 1992). "The Garb of Innocence: A Time of Toplessness". Retrieved 1-14-2010.  
  3. ^ Rovere, Elizabeth. "Culture and Tradition in the Arab Countries: American Returns Touched by the Land and the People". The Habiba Chaouch Foundation.  
  4. ^ C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, The History of Underclothes. London: Faber & Faber, 1981. ISBN 978-0486271248.
  5. ^ "French Caricature". University of Virginia Health System. Retrieved 1-13-2010.  
  6. ^ a b c Lucy Gent and Nigel Llewellyn, eds., Renaissance Bodies: The Human Figure in English Culture c. 1540–1660. London: Reaktion Books, 1990.
  7. ^ "Historian Reveals Janet Jackson's 'Accidental' Exposing of Her Breast was the Height of Fashion in the 1600s". University of Warwick. May 5, 2004.  
  8. ^ "Sixties City - Bringing on back the good times".  
  9. ^ Allen, Anita L. (2006). "Disrobed: The Constitution of Modesty". HeinOnline. Retrieved 11 September 2009. "American laws compel sexually modest behavior... By contrast to Western Europe, topless sunbathing is rarely permitted in the United States."  
  10. ^ "10 successful court cases". Retrieved 26 August 2009.  
  11. ^ Wiehl, Lis. "Indecent Exposure".,2933,200615,00.html.  
  12. ^ "Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act, 2000". Retrieved 1-14-2010.  
  13. ^ "Aborigines' fury over topless ban". BBC NEWS. 27 February 2004.  
  14. ^ "National GoTopless Protest day". Retrieved 26 August 2009.  
  15. ^ "bio...Rudi Gernreich" (in German). Retrieved 1-14-2010.  
  16. ^ Shteir, Rachel (2004). Striptease. Oxford University Press. p. 318-321. ISBN 0195127501.  
  17. ^ "Bikini Styles: Monokini". Everything Bikini. Retrieved 1-14-2010.  
  18. ^ a b c d David Smith Allyn, Make love, not war, pages 23-29, Taylor & Francis, 2001, ISBN 0415929423
  19. ^ Walls, Jeannette (1991-01-14). "High Fashion's Lowest Neckline". New York Magazine.  
  20. ^ Menkes, Suzy (1993-07-18). "Runways: Remembrance of Thongs Past". The New York Times.  
  21. ^ Thesander, Marianne (1997). "The Feminine Ideal". Reaktion Books. p. 187.  
  22. ^ Monaco, James (2003). "The New Wave". UNET 2 Corporation. p. 157.  
  23. ^ Herold, E.S. (1994). Corbesi, B., & Collins, J.. "Psychosocial aspects of female topless behavior on Australian beaches". Journal of Sex Research: 133–142.  
  24. ^ Wiehl, Lis (2006). "Indecent Exposure".,2933,200615,00.html. Retrieved 1-14-2010.  
  25. ^ "GoTopless: 10 successful cases giving women the right to be topless in certain states or cities". Retrieved 1-14-2010.  
  26. ^ "Toplessness: A Right All Women Deserve". Retrieved 1-14-2010.  
  27. ^ "Toplessness defined". Bikini Science. Retrieved 1-14-2010.  
  28. ^ Ebert, Roger (September 30, 1994). "Rapa Nui". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved 2009-10-06.  
  29. ^ Harris, Richard Jackson (1 April 1999). A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication. Lawrence Erlbaum. ISBN 080583088X. Retrieved 11 September 2009. "... the use of body doubles, even for attractive stars, is common."  
  30. ^ Carr, Rachael (3 August 2008). "I'm Kylie's bottom, Britney's boobs and Kristina's tummy ... but I still don't like my body" (HTML). Mail Online. Daily Mail. Retrieved 11 September 2009. "Forget plastic surgery and airbrushing, we celebrity body doubles are the big secret of the entertainment industry. Look hard enough and you'll find us everywhere - from pop videos and adverts to films and magazines. For the past three years, I've been working as a celebrity body double and have seen parts of my body 'stolen' by some of the world's biggest female stars."  
  31. ^ Westwood, Matthew (May 23, 2008). "PM says Henson photos have no artistic merit". The Australian.,25197,23745396-2702,00.html. Retrieved 1-14-2010.  

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