A French judge ordered the magazine Closer to turn over topless photos of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, on Tuesday. Attorneys for the magazine argued unsuccessfully that the photographs were not an invasion of privacy because bare breasts are no longer taboo in Europe. When did bare breasts become taboo in Western civilization?
Probably around 3,000 years ago. Women are displayed with exposed breasts in Minoan artwork from 1500 B.C. Some historians believe that these ancient women went topless only during religious rituals—bare-breasted, buxom goddesses have been worshipped since the dawn of civilization—but some of the artworks depict everyday activities, suggesting that bare breasts may have been commonplace. Just across the Mediterranean, ancient Egyptian women sported elaborate dresses that could either cover the breasts or leave them exposed, depending on the whim of the designer. Over the next few centuries, however, breasts become strictly private parts. Ancient Athenian women were wearing flowing, multilayered robes that concealed the shape of the bosom by the middle of the first millennium B.C. Spartan attire was more risqué, exposing the female thigh, but breasts were always covered.