Slippery Nipples

HOLLY STEVENSON investigates whether Carla Bruni going braless was an example of brazen glory or, put simply, a boob.

blancmange boob Carla Bruni-Sarkozy feminist France germaine greer milton nipple Paradise Lost

Sometimes in life, things just suddenly come together. I’ve had one of those clickety-click weeks – in the same seven days, I have been writing an essay on the first great woman who walked around in the buff, Eve (and by the way Milton, Paradise Lost: great story, but where are the jokes?), I went to the Fitzwilliam museum to see Stanley Spencer’s study of female nudes, and then…Carla Bruni went braless. Sometimes, it seems, the universe does just drop ideas into your lap.

Back in the day, when Germaine Greer still seemed to have a purpose in society, not wearing a bra was a bold feminist statement against male oppression. Women were invited to free themselves from these confining contraptions that were invented by men to shape the female body into an aesthetic ideal. “Hello boys” indeed. Even now, picking up some of the lace and air creations designed by La Senza or M&S, I do think, “this bra isn’t designed with me, the wearer, in mind, but the man ogling me at the till. I wouldn’t look like a woman wearing this, but a giant pink blancmange who got in a fight with a lace doily and lost.”

So ladies, are you ready for this? It seems that in the 21st century, less is definitely more (underwear, that is). Flesh is the new black. Nakedness = power. Going braless is no longer a political statement. It’s a fashion statement.

What Carla Bruni has done by teaming a tight body-con dress (by Roland Mouret – who to me sounds like he should be in the Disney film Ratatouille) with a conspicuous lack of beneath-the-surface scaffolding, is to make the nipple sexy. No more is a hint of cleavage enough to turn the men around you into jelly. The sheer audacity of it has given a whole new dimension to the phrase ‘power dressing’. Just like voluptuous Venus in so many paintings enticing unwitting males with only a coquettish smile and not much else, or Spencer painting himself naked with his lesbian wife Patricia Preece to emphasise his emasculation and vulnerability when confronted with a figure he desired, but could not touch (See? I’m not all about Wonderbras and shopping.), the female body has been since time immemorial a bold statement of feminine power, sexuality and mystery. From Hercules to Henry VIII to Heath Ledger, the most influential and impressive men in history have turned to water at the hint of bare flesh.

However, between Carla Bruni going braless at an important state dinner in a designer dress, and me taking my chances without my boulder-holder on a trip to Sainsbury’s, there is a huge, gaping gulf. Mrs. Bruni-Sarkozy was an underwear model for Christian Dior, Chanel, Versace, and all the other fashion houses that I don’t dare enter decked in ‘Primarni’. A nude photograph of her sold at auction for £65,000. And she also has the breasts of an overweight teenage boy. If I, however, tried to pull the same stunt, I would probably a) get arrested for public indecency, b) knock myself out every time I tried to go slightly above walking pace, c) induce most of the male population of Cambridge to gouge their eyes out.

Don’t worry guys! Your eyes are safe. As is my vigilantly harnessed chest. But the point still stands. At a time when every student in England is going for the same internship, it’s all about standing out from the crowd. Though turning up to interview in a clown suit is something even Carla Bruni couldn’t pull off. But unlike her, we have other things to do apart from standing next to a short cheese-eating-surrender-monkey in various designer labels and singing with Lenny Kravitz (oh yes: that’s her major project for 2010). We have essays to torture ourselves with. Laundry to lug ridiculous distances. Hangovers to shake off. Power dressing is all about poise, panache and, for normal women who don’t buy bras made for teenage girls , practicality.

Carla Bruni may have made a bold new statement about how we perceive the female body in the 21st century. But she is only the glossy cover girl. We’re the ones who have the power. We just have to know how to use it.