In the week before Christmas, we opened up the Explainer mailbag and dumped the dregs into a bucket of the sordid, silly questions sent in by our readers—all the ones the Explainer was unwilling or unable to answer in 2012. These included puzzlers such as Has anyone ever actually used a falling chandelier to take someone out? Or How long could a lactating woman survive drinking her own breast milk? In accordance with tradition, we invited you to pick the one that’s most deserving of an answer. More than 66,000 readers registered their choice, and the winner is addressed below. But first, the runners-up:
In third place, with 7.5 percent of the total vote, a spin on the birds and the bees: When and how did humankind figure out that sex is what causes babies? It’s not exactly the most obvious correlation: Sex doesn’t always lead to babies, and there’s a long lead time between the act and the consequences—weeks before there are even symptoms, usually. So roughly where do we think we were as a species when it clicked?
In second place, with 7.7 percent of the vote, a question that has certainly been asked before: Why do people hate the sound of their own voice when they hear it on a recording?
And in first place, the question that was plastered on Slate’s homepage beside a photo of a bikini babe, and with 24 percent of reader votes, our Explainer Question of the Year for 2012: Why do the rich and famous always sunbathe topless?
The answer: Because they can.
It would be easy to explain away this question as a case of availability bias: Lots of people sunbathe topless, but it’s only the rich and famous ones who capture our attention. Photos of a half-nude and apricating royal—Kate Middleton, perhaps, or Princess Di—are more likely to make the papers than a picture of the Explainer’s nudist cousin Linda. If a model like Heidi Klum or Kate Moss gets caught on camera topless, it’s not because stars like these are more inclined to flash but because they’re under perpetual surveillance, and because people would like to see them without their clothes.
It could also be that rich and famous women have the means to visit places where going topless is expected. If they’re stripping down on the French Riviera, that’s because they happen to be on the French Riviera—not because they like to strip. But this response brings up the question of why the French Riviera (where rich people tend to go) is so forgiving of breast exposure to begin with. Nor can the availability bias elucidate the link between topless fashion and social class. In fact, there’s a long history behind the wealthy, public bosom: The rich have been taking off their tops for centuries.
Starting in the 1300s, European ladies showed their breasts in courtly fashion, and the trend had made its way to England by the late 1500s. Noblemen and -women of the Renaissance collected Greco-Roman statuary, explains historian Angela McShane, and venerated their naked, marble breasts. Queen Anne of Denmark, and maybe also Queen Elizabeth, proudly showed their nipples in public.
Extreme décolletage was well-received in the English court throughout the 1620s and then returned to haute couture in the 1680s, too. Woodcuts of Queen Mary II, who took the throne in 1689, show the monarch with her breasts exposed. While high-class girls could use the super-low-cut gowns to demonstrate their “apple-like” virtue, a naked, bawdy arm would never be exposed in full.
But fashions come and go, and as time went on, the unclothed top became anathema. By the end of the 19th century, ladies of the upper class were taught to cover up, especially in summer. Instead of stripping down and heading to the beach, fancy women popped up parasols and hid themselves in the shade.
It would take a shift in medical belief to set the stage for the re-emergence of the naked breast. At the turn of the 20th century, doctors began to advocate for exposure to the sun, which they said was vital for the body. At the same time, the bulky bathing suits of old were cropped down to smaller, one-piece maillots.
In the 1920s, the rich and avant-garde were spending summers on the beach, hoping for a healthy suntan. In France, where Josephine Baker dazzled as a topless dancer, the young and faddish tried to affect a darkened complexion. Bronzed skin was both fashionable and transgressive. Meanwhile, celebrities like Cole Porter and Rudolf Valentino crossed that Atlantic to spend their summers sunning on the Riviera.
This enthusiasm for bumming on the beach produced a social conflict, as the old-guard ruling class in France—the ones who came of age in the age of parasols—bemoaned the decadence of the nouveau riche. In the 1930s, says historian Christophe Granger, author of Les Corps D’été [Summer Bodies], protesters threw stones at immodest sunbathers and accused them of having public orgies. Restrictive beach laws were passed, limiting what could be done in swimwear. (No walking around or playing ball.)
Bathing suits went on shrinking, though, with starlets and celebrities showing off the new and scanty fashions. Two-piece suits were common by the early 1940s, and in 1946 a pair of Frenchmen invented the bikini. Finally the trend tipped over into toplessness in the 1960s with advent of the “monokini.” Now the fashion-conscious could assert themselves by stripping to their waists. Another round of protests hit the beachhead in France, but the matter was decided in favor of the looser morals. On Aug. 19, 1975, the French magazine L’Express ran an issue with a half-naked woman on the cover, under the headline, “Going topless: The French are for it!”
The link between social class and plunging necklines was not exclusive to Europeans, though. Through the 13th century, for example, upper-class women in Sri Lanka wore outfits that left their breasts exposed. In other places, the meaning of the fashion was reversed. In Southern India, both men and women were expected to bare their breasts to anyone of higher caste. Riots broke out in 1858 after Christian missionaries started putting shirts on low-class women so they could hide their nipples like proper, Western women.
When and where the fashions could not be enforced by rule of law, trends in décolletage would trickle down the social ladder, then get disavowed or criticized by those in power. Back in 17th-century England, the courtly tendency to expose the breast was in certain decades vulgarized by prostitutes, who could not afford the undergarments used to push the naked breast above the breastbone.
Even now, the topless habits of the rich and famous have their analog among the middle class. Young women who can’t afford a stay in Cannes might still indulge in topless fashion on Spring Break or at Mardi Gras. And like Kate Middleton or Heidi Klum, they sometimes end up on camera.
Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.
Explainer thanks Brett Lunceford of the University of South Alabama and Angela McShane of the Royal College of Art.
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