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Health

Cultural Cleavage

Bared bosoms have been deeply embedded in culture for hundreds of years.

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People who yearn for old-fashioned public decency might be surprised to talk to historian Angela McShane-Jones at the University of Warwick. In her studies of 17th-century ballads—cheaply printed popular songs bought and sold like today’s CDs—she found that the accompanying illustrations (above) often contained images of bare-breasted women. The perception of the bosom was quite different at the time, she says: “You see busty women representing innocence just as often as fallen ladies. And women of the court clearly had no modesty about showing their nipples.”

Ironically, extreme décolleté was the height of fashion in the very middle of Oliver Cromwell’s puritanical reign. Bared bosoms continued to cycle in and out of fashion during the 18th and 19th centuries, even amid Victorian prudery. “It seems odd to us because our views are so deeply embedded in our culture,” McShane-Jones says, “but then it would have been vastly more shocking to show your legs or forearms.”

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