By Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News
May 17, 2004 — Women of the 1600s, from queens to prostitutes, commonly exposed one or both breasts in public and in the popular media of the day, according to a study of fashion, portraits, prints, and thousands of woodcuts from 17th-century ballads.
The finding suggests breast exposure by women in England and in the Netherlands during the 17th century was more accepted than it is in most countries today. Researchers, for example, say Janet Jackson's Super Bowl baring would not even have raised eyebrows in the 17th century.
Angela McShane Jones, a lecturer in history at University of Warwick in Coventry, England, became interested in the subject while studying the nearly 2,000 woodcut ballads housed in the Samuel Pepys collection at Cambridge University. Additional ballad sheets located at the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, Harvard University, and other institutions fuelled her study.
Ballad sheets served as the pop music and pulp fiction of their time. With a cost between half a penny and a penny, they were affordable, and could be purchased from street hawkers, and at fairs and markets. Most featured a woodcut that illustrated 10 to 14 verses of song.
Many of these woodcuts showed women with breasts bared.
Jones told Discovery News that the ballad depictions of women coincided with popular fashion. At the time, women often wore low-cut dresses that exposed the chest and breast.
In paintings, breast exposure could have symbolic meaning, particularly when only one breast was shown. Jones explained that high court ladies often were painted in allegories as classical figures or as female saints, whose martyrdom usually involved breast removal.
Far from being a sign of tawdriness, Jones said breast exposure during the 1600s could indicate a woman's virtue.
"The exposure of the breast was a display of the classical and youthful beauty of the woman — she was showing her 'apple like' unused Venus breasts," Jones said. "This was a display of her virtue, her beauty, and her youth. Upper class women maintained the quality of their breasts by not breast feeding their children and passing them on to wet nurses."
She added, "Though women outside the upper circles may well have taken to this style, it began as a very high-class fashion which demonstrated high class and classical ideals of female beauty. The husband of a woman dressed like this would be proud to have his classical beauty on display, and for a woman it was part of her honor that she could display her virtue in this way."
Jones believes the trend probably started with Agnes Sorel, who was a mistress in the French court during the 1400s. The fashion spread, and was popularized in England by Queen Mary II and Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I. In fact, the famous British architect Inigo Jones designed a dress for Henrietta Maria that fully revealed her breasts.
Bernard Capp, professor of history at the University of Warwick, agrees that breast exposure was prevalent, and not scandalous, during certain periods of British history.
Capp said during these times, "Revealing attire — worn in the right social spaces — could be fully compatible with virtue and honor."
He added that some conservatives and court outsiders, such as the 17th-century Puritan lawyer William Prynne, objected to the popular clothing, which female actresses often wore.
Capp said Prynne once criticized Henrietta Maria after she performed in a court masque, and in 1633 wrote, "... women actors (are) notorious whores."
The government responded by having his ears chopped off.
Breast-displaying fashion had a number of comebacks in the 18th and 19th century, including during the Victorian era. Jones said during many of these bust-baring periods it would have been shocking for a woman to show her shoulders or legs, which were more associated with male sexuality.
"I think that parts of the body are sexualized and desexualized for a whole range of reasons," she said. "The breasts have become a part of the body which is seen as entirely sexual, but that could change again."