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Why Did Tudor Women Wear Bare Breasted Dresses?

In 1450, mistress turned queen Agnes Sorel became the inspiration for the famous painter Jean Fouquet's masterpiece The Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels. The painting is particularly well-known for its vivid exposure of Mary's left breast. Which, in modern times, a woman of her stature would most likely be ravaged by public controversy. However, for Sorel, having a divine depiction of her breast on a famous painting was not deleterious to her reputation in the least. As a matter of fact, Sorel had gotten in more trouble from wearing diamonds, a severe offense in the eyes of French Nobility, who felt Sorel was not noble enough to wear the shimmering gemstone.

The 15th-century nobility, along with their northerly neighbors in England, wore dresses that fully exposed one or both breasts. In the next century, the exposed breast was popular with Tudor era nobility. Queen Elizabeth I, was known for regularly wearing dresses in public that completely exposed both her breasts.

But why? Why did wealthy women during these periods dress in this provocative way?


Scholars who have studied Tudor fashion have all agreed that the exposed breast trend began to show how wealthy you were. People in the 21st century buy Gucci belts, drive Mercedes-Benz, or wear RayBan shades to convey their status. However, for wealthy women in Tudor England, one fashionable method to exemplify your social status was being able to expose your breasts in public. By wearing a dress cut below the breasts, a Tudor woman was proudly indicating they could afford a wet nurse. Or, as historian Angela McShane Jones, a lecturer at the University of Warwick in England, puts it: "This was a display of her virtue, her beauty, and her youth. Upper-class women maintained the quality of their breasts by not breastfeeding their children and passing them on to wet nurses."

This propensity for maintaining a youthful-looking breast is also shown in how wealthy nobility desired a pale appearance to give the impression they did not have to work outside. Having sunkissed skin was perceived as a sign of outdoor manual labor. The same principle applies to nursing a baby. Nursing mothers often experience wear and tear from breastfeeding that sometimes depletes its aesthetic appeal. Moreover, women in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries did not want to compromise their appearance and take the time to nurse their babies. This child-raising method seems almost cruel today, but it was a facet of your high status for noblewomen like Sorel.

The exposed breast fashion trend was also popular for other reasons besides symbolizing high status. Jones says the exposed breast was utilized so women could show off their beauty and virtue:

"Though women outside the upper circles may well have taken to this style, it began as a very high-class fashion which demonstrated high class and classical ideals of female beauty. The husband of a woman dressed like this would be proud to have his classical beauty on display, and for a woman it was part of her honor that she could display her virtue in this way."

Along with virtue, Jones also added:

"The exposure of the breast was a display of the classical and youthful beauty of the woman — she was showing her 'apple-like unused Venus breasts."

During the Renaissance, England, like the rest of Europe, was obsessed with virtue and resembling the recently trendy Classical Greco-Roman culture revitalization. This cultural movement led Tudor women to strive for an appearance similar to a Greek or Roman sculpture of Venus, the goddess of beauty and love. Moreover, since European culture emphasized virtue, Elizabethan Era Englanders--especially the aristocracy--associated a small untouched breast with virtuousness.


Even though the low-cut dress trend was relatively common and considered virtuous by most, it was not appropriate in every social situation. According to historian Bernard Capp, the professor of history at Warwick: "Revealing attire — worn in the right social spaces — could be fully compatible with virtue and honor."

Evidence to corroborate this statement by professor Capp is found in many descriptions of royal women such as Henrietta Maria (the Queen Consort of England during the mid-17th century) and Queen Elizabeth I. The former, Henrietta, was well-known for her revealing dresses in court. In fact, she would occasionally perform at court masques with both breasts exposed. During one of those court performances, a puritan lawyer named William Prynne publicly criticized Henrietta's low-cut dress, leading to the Crown chopping off the puritan's ears as retribution. The cruel and silent (ear pun intended) punishment indicates how the majority of European culture viewed low-cut dresses, with the conservatively minded puritans living in the minority.


Queen Elizabeth I was also known to wear low-cut dresses, even during formal meetings with officials like her French Ambassador Michel De Castlenau, who provides scholars with exceptionally reliable written sources on Elizabeth I. For example, when he first met Elizabeth I during a bureaucratic meeting, he describes the front of her dress as follows:

"She kept the front of her dress open, and one could see the whole of her bosom, and passing low, and often she would open the front of this robe with her hands as if she was too hot."

From this description, it is pretty clear Castlenau is writing about a low-cut dress that exposed "the whole" of her breast. However, Elizabeth I did not wear those dresses merely to show how much she looked like a Roman sculpture. In fact, it is understood by scholars that Elizabeth I, in particular, wore low-cut dresses for rather ubiquitous reasons. Elizabeth I was known as the Virgin Queen during her reign, a badge she wore proudly by wearing exposed dresses. In other words, Elizabeth I wanted her peers and subjects to know she was a virgin and proud to be so. Elizabeth I, unlike her peers, wore her low-cut dresses for political reasons to make a statement of her purity and virtue.

Landon Girod

HFC Blog Writer

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