Sara Sheridan writes historical fiction – the popular Mirabelle Bevan Murder Mysteries set in 1950s as well as epic novels set 1820-1845. Fascinated particularly by female history she is a cultural commentator who appears regularly on television and radio. In 2014 she was named one of the Saltire Society’s 365 Most Influential Scottish Women, past and present. In 2016 she founded Urban Reivers, a Scottish luxury brand with the stated aim of challenging the country’s cultural cringe.
It is easy to set aside how history forms our perceptions. The 21st century mindset is to invent ourselves entirely from scratch – we like to believe we can have whatever we want and be whatever we want to be – and that where we come from is not as important as where we are going. While modern psychology encourages individuals to examine their personal history most people never consider the influence of their cultural roots – particularly if they are white, European and part of the majority.
As a woman who studies female history I find this omission fascinating. When I talk at book festivals and libraries about the restrictions faced by our many times great grandmothers, audiences invariably find the stories amusing. Most fascinating of all is looking at what was forbidden. Sexual fidelity generally features at the top of the list of required female behaviour but running down that list uncovers a plethora of Dos and Don’ts for our female forbears. During the heyday of the British Empire, a woman wouldn’t dream of riding anything other than sidesaddle, for example – not if she was a lady. To ride astride a horse was considered simply too sexual. Likewise, matters of dress were key. In our era of modern feminism, it is difficult to understand (and very easy to laugh at) the horror with which women wearing trousers were viewed. Because trousers are now everyday attire, we find it difficult to take in how recently things have changed. Illustrating the point, in comical 1920s fashion is the story of Mrs Aubrey Le Blonde the first president of the Women’s Alpine Club who, climbing in Switzerland, left her skirt by mistake at the summit of Zinal Rothorne and made the decision to climb the mountain a second time to retrieve it rather than return to Zermat in (gasp!) trousers. Half a century later when Yves Saint Laurent launched his ‘Le Smoking’ collection of women’s eveningwear based on traditional male dinner suits, the fashion world was scandalised.
As an historical novelist I frequently have to inhabit this headspace to create believable historical characters that sit within their setting. For most people though such dilemmas seem comical – as if previous generations were stupid for not thinking what we think. I often wonder which aspects of our behaviour our great grandchildren will find laughable.
No breach of etiquette elucidates the point more than the taboo of female toplessness. Most women today wouldn’t dream of going topless in their day-to-day lives. For most of us it is a step too far – entirely unacceptable behaviour. To bear your breasts publicly suggests easy virtue rather than beauty and worse, in the UK, baring all remains a class issue first and foremost. In 2012 when the Duchess of Cambridge was snapped naked from the waist up on holiday by a paparazzo, the UK press went wild not only because it was an intrusion into her privacy but also because the pictures showed her sunbathing topless. The snaps were banned in Britain although they appeared in France (where female toplessness is less of an issue). The Duchess after all was a British lady and there is little more shaming for a lady in this country than the public display of her nipples.
French perception over the centuries has generally been different from ours. While Oliver Cromwell buttoned up every aspect of British society from the celebration of Christmas to the celebration of female flesh, in 1661 when Charles II returned to the throne, he brought a liberal attitude to female behaviour from the French court. Necklines across the country quickly plummeted so far that lady’s dressing table sets of the day include pots of carnelian nipple make up. Nell Gwynn, the King’s mistress, was painted nude and even Frances Teresa Stuart (the court’s It Girl) was painted with a top so low that her nipples are clearly visible. It’s interesting to note that in contrast to today, the sight of an ankle was considered vastly more shocking than the sight of a female breast, as evidenced by Samuel Pepys’ frequent frissons of sexual excitement at the flash of ankle allowed him by the swish of a skirt. A few decades later when Robert Strange went into hiding after Culloden, his fiancé, Isabella Lumsden, hid him from the redcoats under her paniered skirt. She became a Jacobite heroine, despite the fact that in 1745, women didn’t wear knickers. I have no doubt that had she somehow had to go topless to effect his safety, the admiration afforded would have been far less.
So when did our culture change? When did the Puritan breast haters revert to having their way? Like many 20th and 21st century taboos we need to look to the Victorian era when the Queen herself tightened restrictions on women as surely as bone corsets stopped them taking in a deep breath. While some women stretched the boundaries of what was acceptable in the fields of academia, publishing and travel and there were concerted campaigns to extend women’s political and social rights, I have yet to find a single example of one who retained any kind of respect while going Tops Off.
Toplessness continues a hot issue over a hundred years later. There is a mounting campaign to ban glamour models from Page 3 (recently given a boost when Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Sun, declared – ironically if you know anything about the history of the issue – that the concept might be ‘old-fashioned’’). Alongside this, there is an ongoing movement to make public breastfeeding acceptable and to ‘free the nipple’. In our digital age the issue has been taken onto social media platforms with some providers allowing women to post topless photos while others use technology that searches for skin tone in order to censor them. Bruce Willis’s daughter recently walked topless through New York posting photographs of herself all the way. Pussy Riot are more often topless than clothed in between their terms in Moscow’s jails. Toplessness has become by turns a protest, a right and call for sexual freedom.
One definition of modern day feminism is a woman having control over her own body. While some Victorian restrictions on female behaviour have been removed (not least the taboo of sex before marriage) female toplessness persists as an unacceptable concept for respectable women in this country and feminist debate about it is split. For some it is a mark of freedom – a personal choice – while for others it represents the sexualisation of women’s bodies by men. The fact that there is a debate, however, highlights that there may well soon be a shift in what we consider culturally acceptable – a shift that seems as shocking today as a woman wearing trousers was in the early 20th century.
Two years ago at the Edinburgh International Book Festival I posed topless for the official festival photographer, Chris Close. The shot was taken from behind – a thistle drawn up my spine – a protest about an assertion by another crime writer that the cosy crime genre in which I write, somehow wasn’t Scottish and worse, that it was spineless compared to his own, more forensic approach to telling crime stories. The reaction was mixed. One member of staff insisted we cut short the photoshoot while others applauded my bravery. I have to admit, it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done and truly, I wouldn’t have done it full frontal. Later the picture went on display outside the Festival Spiegeltent and I was stopped several times by members of the public who said they thought it was beautiful. I couldn’t help thinking Charles II might have approved.
In some countries, it is considered unacceptable for a women to show even her face in public. In large parts of the Middle East this practice has developed in recent decades and become normal, demonstrating how quickly change is possible, for better or worse. A dangerous woman in Beirut might appear with her head uncovered. One in Edinburgh might wear a top cut ‘too low’ to be acceptable. Where these cultural lines are drawn is telling about women’s place in society and how much they change over time demonstrates political and cultural flexibility. In our country, it feels as if this particular uncrossable line has stayed in place for a long time. There are many things to become militant about for the modern, British woman – our society is dominated by male culture and time and time again studies reveal this bias. However, we have enough freedom to still be dangerous sometimes. We mustn’t forget to use it.