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Historian Reveals Janet Jackson’s ’Accidental’ Exposing of Her Breast was the Height of Fashion in the 1600s


New research from the University of Warwick reveals that Queens and prostitutes bared their breasts in the media of the 1600s to titillate the public, and that the exposure of a single breast in portraits and prints was common in portrayals of court ladies. While Janet Jackson’s action of baring her right breast at the Super Bowl earlier this year was considered outrageous, such exposure in 17th century media wouldn’t have raised so much as an eyebrow.

In expensive portraits and cheaper engraved prints the exposure of both breasts tended to be restricted to court ladies who were known as mistresses. But, the exposure of one breast was a different matter- depictions of court ladies as St Catherine, for example, could involve the exposure of a single breast.

Further, court ladies and ’town misses’ actually wore extremely low cut décolleté fashions that revealed breasts and, sometimes, nipples. While royal breasts were not usually depicted in high art, they may well have been shown. A dress designed by Inigo Jones to be worn by Charles I’s wife Henrietta Maria would have fully revealed the Queen’s breasts, if worn.

The study by Angela McShane Jones reveals fashions of women displaying their breasts were commonplace and breast baring was a style followed by many, from Queens to common prostitutes. High fashion was led by the court, and copied by all classes.

The paper “Revealing Mary” analyses 17th woodcuts used to illustrate over 10,000 ballads. These were the cheapest, most popular and politically charged media of the day.

McShane Jones reveals that breasts - including the breasts of the Queen herself - were commonly depicted on ballad sheets to illustrate the text. Depictions of Queen Mary II of England, wife of William of Orange, frequently show her baring her breasts. In several woodcuts (1689-1694) the ‘modest and virtuous’ Mary is represented as openly baring her breasts.

Woodcuts were deliberately chosen to target buyers and to complement the context of the ballad. Just as today’s magazines often depict scantily clad women on their covers, pictures of buxom women displaying their boobs on ballads were a selling point for a male audience, and a female one, if the pictures described the latest fashions.

Diarist Samuel Pepys’ collection of nearly 2000 song sheets contains more busty ballads than any other contemporary collection, and it’s not hard to imagine that there was a certain preference in his ballad buying.

Images of big-breasted women similar to celebrity tabloid pin-ups have appeared in popular media for centuries. However, the woodcuts could be used to depict innocence as well as immorality. For example the same picture of a fashionably big-breasted woman in the 1650s was used in a number of different ballads to illustrate an innocent, a tempted and a fallen maiden.

Historian Angela McShane Jones from the University of Warwick said: “In the 1600s it was fairly commonplace for women to bare their breasts in public. The fashions were initiated by court members and Queens, then replicated by ordinary women, and common prostitutes. 17th century fashion, rather than demeaning women, could be empowering. The extremely low cut dresses were designed to encourage men to look but not to touch. They empowered some women to use their sexuality.”

Jenny Murray | University of Warwick
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