free the nipple? fashion has been doing it for decades

Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Wolfgang Tillmans... fashion has always embraced nudity, but context is everything when it comes to revealing images.

by Sarah Raphael
03 April 2015, 12:05pm

In the midst of the Page 3 debate earlier this year, it occurred to me that the breast-leering, Sun-reading, UKIP sympathizing, breakfast burrito eating stereotype man - might be better off picking up a fashion magazine (that he's probably never heard of.) In magazines like i-D, Dazed and Confused, Interview, Wonderland and a host of other high fashion titles, you can find lots of pictures of bare breasted, beautiful women. So why isn't our demographic the man I just described? And why aren't we being hit at by feminists for exposing women?

Quite simply, because it's not like that. Fashion photography - I must say in general - doesn't view women in this way. I would argue that as magazines with integrity and dignity, who work with like-minded photographers, the pictures we put out promote the same respectful view of the women who may be "topless" in the pages. For some people, like my nan for instance, looking through the pages of i-D can be a bit of a shock because at times there is a lot of nudity, but it rarely has anything to do with sex. The style, intention and delivery is as far from Page 3 as you can get on two pieces of paper where the facts are the same.

Nude or nipple-bearing fashion photography in the 70s was much more overtly sexual than it is now. Helmut Newton's late 70s, early 80s series Big Nudes featured women in strong statuesque poses, very naked. Their nudity however, was and still is a powerful statement for women. The Daily Mail ran a story (case in point) in 2013 around a new Newton exhibition, and spoke heavily about the Big Nudes series. In the article, they quoted David Fahey, a gallery owner and friend of Newton's, who describes his images as "sexually charged", but then says, "They're stories that say: 'Women can be as powerful and as dominating as men.'" So the nudity, while sexual and strong, still has feminist principles.

I'm picking and choosing but take Guy Bourdin's 1973 photograph in Vogue Italia featuring two naked girls washing each other. Lads mags eat your heart out right? But he's playing with that stigma and the end photograph isn't so much sexy. The women are wearing scrubbing mitts and bending in such a way that it feels humorous and irreverent, instead of sexy. As if to say, "why are you looking at this, this isn't what you think it is." Bourdin's vagina flowers picture, featuring four naked woman clutching anthurium flowers between their thighs, is another outright sexual statement, but still its intention feels irreverent, not sexy. His earlier nudes, for example Nudes wearing Charles Jourdan Shoes, 1965, were undeniably sexy, composing of two women in high heels standing - for want of a better phrase - vagina to vagina. As his work progressed though, he began to play with this idea and challenge it, instead of photographing it.

In the 90s, the mood changed, with Corinne Day, Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans, who all shot "topless" or nude models, but with a raw, naturalist approach. I call to mind Teller's photograph of Kristen McMenamy posing nude in what looks like a doorway with her hands on her hips, a Versace heart drawn on her chest and a cigarette in her mouth. It's a statement again about the power of sexuality and the power of women, rather than the sexiness of women. 'Sexy' undermines the image.

Ryan McGinley's nudes began to emerge in the late 90s and early 00s. Perhaps it's something in their expressions - they certainly look very comfortable and their nakedness doesn't shout at you - it's just inherent in the picture. The people in his pictures own their nudity; at no point is it up for grabs. I could reference almost every photographer in fashion, and almost every photographer we work with, because most fashion photographers have or would photograph nudes. Because it's not about sexiness, it's about photography. You're not looking at the breasts or nipples in the photograph, you're looking at the person - because the photographer is looking at the person - and you see what they see.

The legendary photographer Paolo Roversi, who often shoots models partially or fully nude, once described the exchange of photography like this: "I look in your eyes, I want to know your life, I want to know everything. I love people, so I want to have an exchange, for me to take a picture of someone is an exchange. To take a picture is also to give a picture. I'm always curious about people, because through others I learn more about life."

#Freethenipple is a catchy title for something that fashion photography has been doing for decades. Let me be clear, I am not advocating girls to go topless for the sake of their fashion careers, I'm merely commenting that in a lot of fashion photography, breasts and nipples aren't being thought of as sexual by anyone involved in the process. And from what I understand, that's the point of #freethenipple.

Take the photograph of Keira Knightley in Interview magazine last year, photographed by one of the industry greats, Patrick Demarchelier. It was another powerful statement of feminism. Having been airbrushed and pumped up in films and posters, Keira told The Times, "I've had my body manipulated so many different times for so many reasons, whether it's paparazzi photographers or for film posters. And that [shoot] was one of the ones where I said: 'Ok, I'm fine doing the topless shot so long as you don't make them any bigger or retouch.' Because it does feel important to say it really doesn't matter what shape you are."

After the abusive leaking of her personal photographs, Jennifer Lawrence posed for the cover of Vanity Fair, and there was a picture inside that revealed part of her breasts. She said, "It's my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting." Lawrence appeared, not topless but not fully clothed either, in the magazine soon after to make this point, and very well too.

Countering everything I've said so far, are Kate Moss' comments about being asked to take her top off in her early shoots at the age of 15. Talking specifically about the breakout 1990 cover shoot for The Face, photographed by her friend, the late Corinne Day, Kate told Vanity Fair in 2012: "I see a 16-year-old now, and to ask her to take her clothes off would feel really weird. But they were like, if you don't do it, then we're not going to book you again. So I'd lock myself in the toilet and cry and then come out and do it. I never felt very comfortable about it. There's a lot of boobs. I hated my boobs! Because I was flat-chested. And I had a big mole on one. That picture of me running down the beach—I'll never forget doing that, because I made the hairdresser, who was the only man on the shoot, turn his back." The photos seem to show Kate comfortable and care-free, photographed by her female friend. But the truth is it made her feel vulnerable and scared. So I can argue that fashion photography is like free the nipple and it has positive, artistic intentions and impacts for the media's view on women, but Kate's comments are much more important than any of it. What she said is testament to the illusion that a fashion image can create, which as we've seen in this and other particular instances, can be very dangerous.

It's worth noting too that what happens to an image once it leaves the camera and gets printed and distributed, is beyond control. We can't control who picks up i-D in WHSmiths and what they think about when they see an image. I highly doubt the Page 3 seeking Sun readers are going to, but still.

Not everyone will agree with #freethenipple, and it will even be quite offensive to some cultures in our society - certainly it is to the culture I was brought up in. It brings up a lot of issues, perhaps after all, especially in the fashion industry. But then #Freethenipple is not about nipples, is it? It's about choice, and its principles of freedom and the de-sexualization of women's bodies are hard to pick apart, or so I thought when I started writing this article.


Text Sarah Raphael
Photography Piczo, backstage at Thomas Tait spring/summer 15

Free the Nipple
wolfgang tillmans
fashion photography
helmut newton
guy bourdin