#MeToo vs. #FreeTheNipple: Nipple Shirts Mesh Feminism and Fashion

Does popularity of tees, which lightheartedly mark where the nipples are, attest to a revolution’s success – or its failure?

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The Boob Sweat, by Never Fully Dressed. Started a global fashion phenomenon.
The Boob Sweat, by Never Fully Dressed. Started a global fashion phenomenon.Credit: Never Fully Dressed / Lucy Ann Tighe
Shira Pur
Shira Pur
Shira Pur
Shira Pur

In our day and age, all you really need to establish a cult following for your brand is one Instagram photo featuring a Kardashian. At least that was the case for the aptly named Boob T-shirts, made by British brand Never Fully Dressed.

Their tees, featuring a sloppy scribble of two breasts (not exactly something someone would wear to an office meeting, even if that person really wants to make a point), may have been around for the past six years.

A T-shirt by Zara. Burgers instead of nipples.

But one single post by Kendall Jenner – a supermodel known for opposing bras and a prominent representative of the “Free the Nipple” movement – rescued it from oblivion six months ago, and turned it into the latest uniform for anyone wishing to be perceived as a model feminist.

Some saw it as a kind of Western tribute to the East European feminist protest movement Femen, which seeks to put on the public agenda traditional injustices by crashing events while armed with bare breasts and holy rage.

But the tee, which was designed by the brand’s founder Lucy Anne Tighe, was originally meant to promote awareness about mental health by donating five pounds from each item sold to the MIND charity. Its huge international success – since Jenner posted her image, the British brand has expanded significantly into the U.S. market and inspired countless copycats – has managed to create a fashion phenomenon that directly confronts sexual harassment of women and raises the issue of what women are allowed and aren’t allowed to wear.

A model wearing the Boob T by Never Fully Dressed.Credit: Never Fully Dressed.

‘Free the (drawn) nipple’

Never Fully Dressed doesn’t operate alone. California-based brand Otherwild, which was founded in 2012 and is famous for its “The Future is Female” T-shirt slogan, already has a number of variations on the breast topic: Starting with a line of clothing items with an infinity symbol whose circles are focused on the area of the breasts, through its second collaboration (out of four so far) with the Herstory movement, including a shirt with an illustration of two female breasts fighting each other, inspired by a photo that Larry Butler took during a march for equal rights for gays and lesbians in 1979, to a shirt simply bearing the message, “Free the nipple,” and is offered with nipples that come in two colors, peach or brown.

The commercial potential in nipple shirts has not escaped the eyes of British fashion giant Topshop, which recently ordered from Tighe a respectable inventory of the winter version of the shirts, which brought 20,000 pounds to the MIND charity.

The Boob T by Never Fully Dressed. Not exactly something someone would wear to an office meeting.Credit: Never Fully Dressed / Lucy Ann Tighe

Other fast-paced fashion chains are now also flooded with shirts with double prints in the chest area, replacing them with eyes, rainbows or even hamburgers. And thus, the shirts that unabashedly marked the nipples have changed from being a provocative item into an amusing mainstream snack, whose protest roots can be lost on a Zara shopper.

A T-shirt by TOPSHOP.

In feminist terms the T-shirts seem to reclaim ownership of the tits from the ones staring at them. But in times when the leader of the free world views the female body as a toy, Hollywood stars reveal how they have been sexually harassed for years, and a global trend of the hashtag #MeToo exposes the tremendous breadth of sexual coercion of women, the question arises: Does the popularity of such tees attest to the completion of a revolution, or to its complete failure?

Unapologetic tits

It is impossible to talk about the boob shirts without mentioning Madonna’s cone-shaped corset designed by Jean Paul Gaultier in 1990, which paved the way for a world full of unapologetic tits.

But the West isn’t the only region where breasts get special treatment lately. Turkish designer Dilara Findikoglu, the daughter of Muslim parents from Istanbul, has one collection dealing with the culture of rape in her homeland and expresses her deep distaste for the bonds of religion.

It is evident that her spiritual parents are Vivian Westwood and John Galliano, from whom she inherited a heavy dose of theatrical punk. The padded bra in her design, which is a sort of Goth T-shirt for those golden cones of Madonna, became a surprising commercial hit since it was presented in the first collection of the brand bearing her name last year.

It comes in a fragmented print of metal bands like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, or from smooth white cloth for more solid dressers, and another version out of black silk with red captions was shown in Findikoglu’s debut collection at the London fashion week last September.

Findikoglu was marked as a goal-oriented rebel already when she finished her studies at Central Saint Martins in London in late 2015. After she didn’t make the official graduates’ show of the prestigious school, she organized a alternative show that unified the rejected students and let them expose their projects to journalists.

This initiative drew media attention to her eccentric final collection, which dealt with divided identity and mixed traditional British tailoring with kaffiyeh fabrics and crazy outfits. A year later she sold her padded shirt in prestigious fashion halls like Nordstrom, Opening Ceremony and Selfridges, and she dressed Rihanna – also a well-known nipple freedom fighter – for the magazine cover of the CR fashion magazine, among other things in a white corset with two red pompoms in the area of the nipples.

A model wears a T-shirt by Sasha Nassar.Credit: Olga Khokhlova

Madonna, by the way, has yet to wear her cones, but she was seen last July in another of Findikoglu’s works, a colorful velvet blazer from the current winter collection, with beaded embroidery and an old-school tattoo recounting in horrifying fashion the story of the biblical Garden of Eden.

Peace and love

Meanwhile, in Paris, Jaffa native and designer Sasha Nassar doesn’t understand what the brouhaha is all about. She showed her Summer 2018 collection for the fashion week in the lobby of a boutique hotel next to the Champs-Elysees. It is a relatively small collection of 10 designs that were sewed together from kaffiyeh cloths produced in a Hebron factory – the last of the factories in Israel and the Palestinian Authority that did not desert to China.

Madonna wearing the cone-shaped corset designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, in 1990.Credit: Sean Kardon / AP

On the occasion of the launch, she created two T-shirts with Arabic writing on the breasts: “Habib alibi” (“My love) in red and “Inta omri” (“You are my life”) in black, which hung in a window facing the street and were on sale for 45 euros apiece.

“The shirts definitely attracted a lot of attention, both because of the Arabic writing and because it is on the tits,” says Nassar. “But what was most important to me was using my language to spread peace and love. These are expressions that I say all the time in Arabic, and I wanted to share them with everybody. ... Although the location of the caption is explosive, it’s in the end a message that spreads love and is close to the heart.”

A T-shirt by Cheap Monday.Credit: CM Studio


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