Perhaps surprisingly, in many European societies between the Renaissance and the 19th century, exposed breasts were more acceptable than they are today, with a woman’s bared legs, ankles or shoulders being considered to be more risqué than her exposed breasts.
As a result of the Renaissance, many artists were strongly influenced by classical Greek styles and culture, and images of nude and semi-nude subjects in many forms proliferated in art, sculpture and architecture of the period. In aristocratic and upper-class circles the display of breasts also invoked associations with classical Greek nude sculptures and art and was at times regarded as a status symbol, as a sign of beauty, wealth or social position. To maintain youthful-looking bosoms women could employ wet nurses to breastfeed their children.
Breast-baring female fashions have been traced to 15th-century courtesan Agnès Sorel, mistress to Charles VII of France, whose gowns in the French court sometimes exposed one or both of her breasts.
As reflected in contemporary art, she was an extraordinarily beautiful young woman, and was also of above-average intelligence. The French king was immediately enamoured of her and she soon became his mistress. The King gave her the Château de Loches (where he had been persuaded by Joan of Arc to be crowned King of France) as her private residence.
Soon, her presence was felt at the royal court in Chinon where her company was alleged to have brought the king out of a protracted depression.She had a very strong influence on the king, and that, in addition to her extravagant tastes, earned her a number of powerful enemies at court.
Agnès gave birth to three daughters fathered by the King: Marie de France, Charlotte de France, and Jeanne de France. (Charlotte’s son, Louis de Brézé, seigneur d’Anet, in turn married Diane de Poitiers, herself ultimately a famous royal mistress.)
While pregnant with their fourth child, she journeyed from Chinon in deep midwinter to join Charles on the campaign of 1450 in Jumièges, wanting to be with him as moral support. There, she suddenly became ill and died at the age of 28. While the cause of death was originally thought to be dysentery, scientists have now concluded that Agnès died from being poisoned by mercury, possibly the victim of murder, although mercury was also used to treat worms. She was interred in the Church of St. Ours, in Loches.
Charles’ son, the future King Louis XI, had been in open revolt against his father for the previous four years. It has been speculated that he had Agnès poisoned in order to remove what he may have considered her undue influence over the king. It was also speculated that French financier, noble and minister Jacques Coeur poisoned her, though that theory is widely discredited as an attempt to remove Coeur from the French court. In 2005 French forensic scientist Philippe Charlier examined her remains and determined that the cause of death was mercury poisoning, but offered no opinion about whether she was murdered. Mercury was sometimes used in cosmetic preparations and this could therefore have been the reason for her death. Her cousin Antoinette de Maignelais took her place as mistress to the king after her death.
In general; aristocratic women sought to immortalise their breasts in paint, as in the case of Simonetta Vespucci, whose portrait with exposed breasts was painted by Piero di Cosimo in c.1480. During the 16th century, women’s fashions displaying their breasts were common in society, from Queens to common prostitutes, and emulated by all classes.
Similar fashions became popular in England during the 17th century when they were worn by Queen Mary II and by Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I of England, for whom architect Inigo Jones designed a masque costume that fully revealed both of her breasts.
From the mid-19th century onward, however, social attitudes shifted to require women’s breasts to be covered in public, especially in the United States. This attitude has been reflected to a more limited degree in the arts. In the 1930s, the Hays Code brought an end to nudity in all its forms, including toplessness, in Hollywood films. Although a degree of liberalization took place in the later 20th century, contemporary Western societies still generally view toplessness unfavourably, with the very term topless often carrying the connotation of sexual licentiousness or deliberate defiance of cultural taboo.