The fashion industry is no stranger to the nipple. After all, the runway aims to surprise its audience, and culture has told us that there is no more shocking feat than the female nipple. From underboob to sideboob trends, we have highlighted the breast in fashion but never really ventured into any uncharted territory for fear we may actually uncover female anatomy. In reality, we want to see the female nipple in all its glory – in complete conjunction with the freedom of the male nipple.
Since Kim Kardashian released her Skims nipple push-up bra this month, it would seem that we just cannot deal with the female nipple conversation being brought up again. People think it’s the new era of sex, meant to see the wearer turned on by everything and everyone. Others enjoy its perversity and think it is the prime iconic Madonna cone bra era, and some are just downright anti-nipple. But most are missing the mark on how this debate is just another way to police women’s bodies. The product embraces the natural silhouette of a woman’s body, and purposefully designs a piece of clothing that accentuates parts we have been told to be ashamed of. The more the nipple is hidden, essentially, the more it is fetishised.
A Kardashian crafting this type of underwear shows that we no longer need to pacify societal expectations of hiding a normal part of our anatomy that we all have. Now, the cultural significance of the female nipple in fashion has the potential to become accessible to all. Is Kim K’s divisive design pioneering this new and improved nipple-mania, or are we simply seeing perky breasts temporarily shake up the industry again like time and time before?
You would think in 2023, we had gotten past clutching our pearls at the sight of a bare nipple, but it almost feels like we have regressed. This 2023 season, nipples were cracked in egg yolks and adorned in resin roses at Puppets and Puppets’ FW23 show, and sequin-clad at Bronx and Banco. Hermés, Mugler, and Valentino opted for a sheer covering of the nipple, showcasing the 2023 updated free nipple trend to be concealed under layers of mesh and tulle. It is as though we can only digest the sight of a female nipple when it falls under some thinly veiled artistic excuse.
The Skims nipple bra could surprisingly be the sign of progress we so desperately need in current times. It was back in 2012 when the ‘Free the Nipple’ movement last significantly pushed boundaries – and things did change. Since then, more celebrities have now bared all in the media, from the likes of Doja Cat to Dua Lipa and Julia Fox to Janelle Monáe. But for us regular folk, social media still mysteriously bans accounts and removes posts on social media when the algorithm catches a nipple that happens to be feminine. And whilst things move at a snail’s pace in the real wider world, the fashion industry is disappointingly even further back, having led the female nipple down a surrealist route of wonder and fascination – a general to-be-looked-at-ness away from its true existence on the body.
Historically, designers have long toyed with the idea of this full-frontal female form display, but have yet to quite seal the deal. The female nipple was turned into a commodity, really, and transformed into a product placed to sell the design as opposed to celebrating it. Take, for example, Schiaparelli’s Trompe L’Oeil approach. Since its inception in 1927, founder Elsa Schiaparelli was embraced for her weird surrealist mode of design, and started using the nipple as a means of accessory throughout her work, which was then continued as part of her legacy. Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau had their collaborative say and elevated the ordinary nipple into something extraordinary. Ahead of its time and avant-garde, yes, but also still concealing the true form of the nipple in defence of what is ‘appropriate’ and ‘tasteful’ in art. When Daniel Roseberry took creative control in 2019, the nipple-ified roots of design were pulled back up, and thus the female nipple as a commodity was back on the market – this time in a nifty jersey tee with gilded brass jewellery nipples on the front.
Schiaparelli’s is probably the most obvious example of the female nipple being embraced in fashion, and many houses have followed suit. Vivienne Westwood in her SS94 show saw Kate Moss clutch on and off her bare chest with one arm, whilst McQueen in ’98 hailed Gisele Bundchen as the woman to bare a flimsy white upper body garment, and Naomi Campbell showed one singular breast for Chanel Haute Couture ‘93. The look that superficially displayed the most advancements (at first glance) in fighting against the narrative that women’s breasts are inherently sexualised, was Shalom Harlow’s walk for Dior Haute Couture in ‘97. In John Galliano’s second term, he sent the supermodel down the runway in a sheer gown with her top half covered in only strings of jewellery. He did also, however, state that his intent was to just make women look beautiful and allow people to dream. It’s not exactly revolutionary in removing the nipple from its sexualised roots.
Alternatively, it could be argued that to replicate the nipple on a garment is to simply place it on the untouchable pedestal we are trying to knock it off in the first place. Here’s also looking at Kim K in that case. Since the 90s, we have barely seen a nipple if it weren’t first concealed in some way, and let’s face it, social media doesn’t help with that. The only positive of Kardashian’s new venture is that as the queen of publicity, she has social media on her side for this one. Even if these weren’t her intentions in the first place, the humble raised bra has caused us to question why we can’t handle the female nipple in fashion, and if we ever will be able to again.
So as we look to the star of the Kardashian clan to overthrow the high-fashion sexualised female nipple and get them out into the streets, we must also ask where exactly did we go wrong? And will now finally be the moment we can bear all in the name of true female form?