There are a few things I’ve never quite understood about some of today’s trends. But most confusing to me is the all-consuming fascination with women’s nipples. There seem to be so many discussions around whether or not women should show them, or if social media outlets like Instagram should ban them. Wasn’t it easier when the only question about nipples was, “Why do men have them?”
And yet, here we are: as women storm music festivals bare chested (save for a generous helping of sparkle,) and companies produce nipple pasties that give the illusion of headlights. The unenlightened among us still insist that women’s nipples need to be shielded from the world by the fabric firewall of our bras.
The reality is, we simply can’t keep pretending that the stigmatization of a body part that (spoiler alert!) we all have is acceptable or normal by any standard. Even nipple pasties have become the target of criticism, despite the fact that the very purpose of their existence is to cover up part of the female body that so many people take issue with. Miley Cyrus took some heat when she wore heart-shaped pasties underneath a sparkly cape on Jimmy Kimmel Live! two years ago (one article suggested that it was “hard” for Kimmel to look Cyrus in the eye – I mean, really?), and Nicki Minaj was pinned as “finding another excuse to parade her naked body” when she chose to make pasties the focal point of her look. If women don’t cover their nipples, they’re inappropriate. If they do, they’re shamed. It’s a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation if ever there was one.
So, dear readers, I want to tell you a story. A story about nipple pasties. Because if growing up watching Marvel movies has taught me anything, it’s that embracing the origin story of something that you don’t fully understand is the fastest route to acceptance. Nip-ceptance, if you will.
Pasties first come about as a result of Western fascination with all things considered Eastern and "exotic." belly dancers and "exotic" performers at the 1893 World’s Fair wore metal breastplates that covered little more than the front of the breast, often adorned with a gem or standout metallic detail where the nipple would be. Circuses began to incorporate these pieces into their stage acts, and slowly, the metal breastplates evolved into the adhesive nipple covers we’re familiar with today.
The new style made its way back to burlesque halls, with the first, more modern appearing on burlesque performers in 1920s Parisian dance halls. They were mainly worn in an effort to abide by rules and regulations that dictated breasts could not be publicly displayed in their entirety. As showmanship was one of the highest priorities among these performers (who were, after all, putting on a show), the first pasties frequently featured gems and tassels that could be twirled and shaken onstage, adding an extra element to what was already a veritable spectacle at the time.
Burlesque performers in the United States quickly picked up the styles of their French predecessors. As performers like Carrie Finnell and Sally Rand rose to prominence in the 1920s and '30s, the pasty evolved, and there was a shift from tasseled pieces to more realistic ones. Nude, nipple-like pasties began popping up onstage, testing the limits of the censorship laws of the time.
Things took a turn for the (slightly) more modest in the 1930s and '40s. Gypsy Rose Lee, a well-known name in the burlesque community and the most celebrated of her time, was known for wearing netted bodysuits with strategically placed decorations. She, too, wore pasties underneath it all, and was famous for adjusting them onstage as part of her act.
The '50s, '60s, and '70s all continued to show pasties within the context of burlesque halls and striptease acts, ranging in style from simple to tassel-laden, but there was a general decline in their popularity as protests around free love and issues surrounding the legality of toplessness took the spotlight. It wasn’t until a burlesque revival took place in the '90s that they came back into fashion: shows featuring activist and educator Jo Weldon (who established the New York School Burlesque in 2003) and Dita Von Teese (a style icon in her own right) brought burlesque into the mainstream, and with it, burlesque style. Thus, the pasty began to assume its current position in the fashion world.
Pasties have appeared on classic movie stars who’ve donned them for roles, like Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot and Lainie Miller in The Graduate, and have adorned the chests of some of today’s most iconic celebrities, including Janet Jackson, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Cher, Britney Spears, and maybe most famously, Lil' Kim. Burlesque dancers and exotic performers continue to wear pasties, either voluntarily as part of their costume aesthetic, or to abide by the local laws still in place. The neoburlesque movement of the '90s gave rise to the normalization of the pasty in women’s fashion, and today we have designers like Tom Ford and Anthony Vaccarello incoporating them into their Collections.
Likely as a result of their visibility on high fashion runways, pasties are worn by some style mavens as essential foundations to (or the focal point of) their outfits. These days, you can find women wearing flesh-colored ones under airy tops, backless dresses, and bodysuits, while more adventurous women make ornate ones a statement accessory, purposefully putting them on display.
The nipple pasty’s official pop culture trend status is only given more credence as the warmer months roll around, heralding the arrival of festival season. As music festivals exploded in popularity over the past 10 years, many clothing brands saw an opportunity to cash in with festival-ready collections. And given that so many take place in extremely warm climates, the less clothing, the better. For some women, these revealing styles make nipple pasties a necessity, where others simply forgo the extra layer of a thin shirt in favor of the pasties themselves.
Music festivals like Coachella, Electric Daisy Carnival, Bonnaroo, and more invite throngs of women (and people of all gender identities, for what it’s worth) to take advantage of the culture of freedom and artistic expression. Many engage with this unique ethos through clothing or the lack thereof, especially with the recent rise of the body positivity movement that encourages women to love themselves and their bodies.
And there you have it: What once was a result of the need to abide by anti-nudity codes and the suppressive culture of the times has now become a fashion trend and a representation of today’s changing attitudes toward nudity and body acceptance as a whole. The female nipple underwent a complete transformation in the last century, from something that needed to be controlled, to something that our culture is slowly starting to celebrate.
That said, not everyone has come around. There are plenty among us who still feel as though women’s "modesty" needs to be protected, even though female toplessness is legal in a few states. This begs the question: when did the onus fall on us, as women, to take care to not offend the delicate sensibilities of those who see the female form as something to be controlled or deserving of shame or suppression?
That thought is just the tip of a larger iceberg of a conversation. But for now, let’s leave it at this: There’s nothing wrong or scary about women’s nipples, or any sort of nipple adornment, be it a pasty, piercing, or otherwise, on display. And if the evolution of the nipple pasty’s history has taught us anything, it’s that times are always changing, and with them, so must we all!.
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Article Text by: Sarah Steinfeld