Nicki Minaj attending a fashion show with one breast exposed and, on our side of the world, the mother openly breastfeeding her child in an MRT train mean one thing: we’re witnessing a new norm… and, possibly, the death of outrage
Nicki Minaj, Paris Fasion Week’s hottest front-row celeb. Photo: gq.com
Fashion is a mirror image of the times, we have been constantly told. And that was what Anthony Vaccarello held up for Saint Laurent last month (actually, also last year): the reflection of the style of our time. How wrong we were to think no woman would wish to have her breasts feel the warmth of sunshine and the caress of afternoon breeze, unhindered by the presence of cloth, in full public view.
The first to prove us wrong was Nicki Minaj. Her constant scantiness makes Madonna’s bra-as-outer-wear antics look positively vestal. Now, Ms Minaj is into showing a whole breast—its entirety not the least diminished by the use of a pasty. This was clearly one bare bosom at the Haider Ackermann show in Paris last week, and one uncovered for maximum social media impact. At first, she was accused of copying Lil’ Kim. Possibly indignant, the Anaconda singer then did something very clever; she came out saying that she was, in fact, inspired by Pablo Picasso’s work (reportedly the 1908 painting Femme a l’éventail). That dirty old man!
The thing is, art has always depicted women with one exposed (mostly left) breast (as if two are over-expressive and titillating). Ms Minaj did not explain why she picked Picassso. She could have been inspired by so many other painters of one exposed breast, from Francesco Melzi to Auguste Renoir to Paul Gauguin, but she chose a leading Cubist known for eroticism in his work. It is possible that in directing her motive to something related to art, Ms Minaj was saying that her exposed breast was an artistic expression. Life never used to imitate art this way. Wasn’t it all in the artist’s vivid/weird imagination? Surely women didn’t think such exposure inspirational?
Pablo Picasso’s Femme a l’éventail. Photo: Musée de l’Ermitage, Leningrad
The second was the woman breastfeeding in an MRT train, and now in the middle of the furore that has divided Netizens this past week. She should have taken the cue from Nicki Minaj. Her exposed breast was a nursing breast, and art is full of bosoms as source of infantile sustenance. Her rejoinder to the post on Stomp could have gone something like this: “I was inspired by Hans Baldung, specifically Virgin and Child.” Surely that would not have caused quite such a stir as the rebuke: “Those who suggest using a cover should try eating or drinking under a cover and see if you like it or not.” Or, the rant: “Anyway, it’s just a breast. We all have it. Be it female or male. It’s meant to be used to feed a baby, I don’t see anything wrong with using it to feed a baby… Maybe girls should stop eating bananas/popsicle in public as some might find it sexual too”—both from her Facebook post, which was defiantly accompanied by more breastfeeding photos.
(Let’s leave aside the fact that men do not usually lactate for now.)
As noted by historian Margaret R. Miles in her book A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast 1350—1750, bosoms were considered religious symbols. Of the Virgin’s symbols: “in early modern Western societies in which Christianity was the dominant religion,” Ms Miles wrote, “her bare breast, appearing in paintings and sculptures, signified nourishment and loving care—God’s provision for the Christian, ever in need of God’s grace.” Who would want to incur the wrath of our National Council of Churches (NCCS) by criticising a woman who merely exposed her breast the way Mary did?
Without the religious advantage, it is, of course, naïve of that woman to think that she was not going to get a secular reaction to her very secular (and public) display. There are basically three ways to respond to this: negatively, neutrally, and positively. Interestingly (perhaps, hearteningly?), many reacted positively—even encouragingly, with some saying it is the most natural thing for a woman to do. The breast’s provision to the child, so many in the pro camp seem to say, obliterates its very nakedness, so much so that you see—if you did see—nothing more than a mother feeding.
Virgin and Child by Hans Baldung. Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
But that trending photograph revealed something else. In her substantial FB post, that woman also said, “I just want to dress up and be a normal woman…” Here, if one were to equate “dress up” to what she wore on that fateful MRT ride, one could see that being in one’s best clothes meant one need not don very much of a dress (according to Lianhe Wanbao, she was on her way to participating in Mrs Singapore. Now you see). She was, therefore, dressed up since dressing up with little that constitutes an outfit is now a normal-womanly thing to do. Her easy-to-pull-down strapless top and a skirt (possibly shorts)—so brief that it is not unreasonable to suspect that both are of equal lengths—bear out the observation that, increasingly, it takes very little cloth to make clothes.
If so much of what we see online is not fake (catchword of the year), fashion is not about clothes. How much you cover is immaterial. Materials, in fact, are secondary just as coverage is no longer the real reason to wear clothes since so little is covered. As more and more celebrities and stars have shown, fashion can exist without garments, or, with incomplete garments. Once the stage personae of more audacious performers—from Josephine Baker to Gypsie Lee Rose to Dita Von Tesse—whose rectitude of motives were never really questioned since their dare-to-bare ways were mostly restricted to the theatre, the exposed body is today very much a part of everyday dress.
As it turns out, the uncovered buttocks of the past years weren’t the last fashion frontier (Azealia Banks, you’re passé!) Now, we aren’t even sure if the bare breast is. The fine line between decency and indecency strangely sits on not much expanse of space—the nipple. Unblocked, it causes offense in the same way the narrow border between the glutes seen will crack the barrier of politeness. The obscuring of the areola, within which the nipple lies (the exit point of breast milk), therefore, lessens the lewdness of the breast bared and, in many nations, stays within the confines of the law. Whether covered by a pasty or the mouth of a hungry infant, the areola unseen, it appears (or suggested by the MRT woman), strips away the sexual aspect of the sole naked bosom. You must appreciate, instead, the epitome of womanhood or, baby in sight, motherhood. Or a fashion statement.
Rapper Lil’ Kim pre-empting Nicki Minaj at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. Photo: Getty Images
For a long time, fashion advertising has allowed us to wean on the normality of the barely covered breast. Who can remember a time when Guess models did not appear to be on the verge of full exposure? But there has always been the divide of they-are-models/we-are-real-women. It’s quite different now. In today’s fashion, familiarity does not always breed contempt. Rather, it fosters assimilation, more so than in art. With social media adherents willing and eager to push fashion messages further towards the extreme, women are willing to follow whoever they follow under the security blanket called “in charge of my own destiny”. Or, as Ivanka Trump says, “Own your femininity”.
Even self-confessed feminist Emma Watson has no qualms of exposing—even not in their entirety—her breasts, as seen in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. To the disapproving masses, she would later say, “They were claiming that I couldn’t be a feminist and have boobs. Feminism is about giving women choice… It’s about freedom; it’s about liberation; it’s about equality.” And she meant not just the freedom, liberation, and equality of the mind, but the body too. She added, “I don’t know what my tits have to do with it”. Which sounded like: I can flash my chest as men can, and do. The interesting thing is, her leading man Dan Stevens had not had to pose in a shirt completely unbuttoned in any magazine to promote Beauty and the Beast.
Ms Watson’s position seems consistent with the agenda of Free the Nipple, the 2014 American docu-film and campaign that not only pushed for gender equality, but also put forth the argument that women be allowed to bare their nipples in public if they choose to. This goes swimmingly with what women have, of late, been told they can do with their bodies, regardless of shape and condition: as you please. They can emulate models or social-media stars, even when they are neither models nor social-media stars. They can show any part of their body on Instagram, even when the world will bear witness to their display and there could be backlash. Eff those who can’t deal with this reality. If dominance is part of what constitutes popularity, then the increasing visibility of bare breasts is going to point, if it has not already, to how we shall dress, and how undisrupting to social norms it shall become.
A one-bare-breast-dress by Anthony Vaccarello for Saint Laurent, spring/summer 2017. Photo: indigital.tv
A dress or blouse or jacket that does not require the portion that covers or enhances the bosom is perhaps also indication that the bust of the garment is redundant. It is quite possible that designers want to do away with that part of the dress, just as many seem to want to rid the area where the shoulder meets the sleeve, allowing it to go “cold”. Anyone with knowledge of dressmaking knows that the bust is often tricky to construct. Fashion students in pattern-making class are known to hate pivoting darts, so much so that many do away with them. The result is often a cut-away bodice comprising two pieces of cloths simply for front and back. Either that or a stretchy fabric such as jersey to cling to every curve and protuberance.
It would be wild speculation to think that Anthony Vaccarello was trying to shirk from creating the most beautifully formed bust on the Saint Laurent dress by not including one, even if it was only on one side. Although in that outfit Mr Vaccarello did not quite “free the nipple”, his predecessor did. In 2015, Hedi Slimane created a permanent and irreversible wardrobe malfunction with a dress that literally covered only half the body, exposing a starkly naked breast. No member of the media seemed particularly disturbed, with vogue.com calling it “fall’s hot topic on the runway”. It must have been, for Olympia Le-Tan even designed a dress with a trompe l’oeil left-breast-exposed—just in case there were those who wanted to bare, but did not dare.
It is suggested that the present fixation with exposing the boob is really backlash against too much easy androgyny and minimalism bordering on the monastic. There’s nothing wrong with an aesthetic that is expressly and visibly female. However, there are no half-measures in fashion. If we look back, we’ll remember that the décolletage soon gave way to the plunging V; the peeking thigh soon gave way to the glaring rump; the blushing crack—left open by the “bumster”—soon led to the full-moon derrière; and the buttocks soon gave up the seat to the bosom. If today is one breast out, will tomorrow be freedom for the other side?