At 56, Madonna bares plenty in Interview’s December issue / Interview Magazine
“It’s confusing. Nipples are considered forbidden and provocative but exposing your ass is not. #flummoxed.” So declared Madonna, that consummate provocatrice, in a November 20 Instagram. Presumably, she was reacting to Kim Kardashian’s butt-baring, ”Internet-breaking” Paper magazine photo shoot and comparing it to having been barred by Vogue editrix Anna Wintour from attending her Met Gala in May in a nipple-exposing bandage dress.
But this week, Madonna puts her money where her mamms are—by exposing her nipples in a gorgeous Interview magazine photo shoot by the red-hot British camera duo Mert and Marcus, alongside an intimate conversation with her old friend, the magician David Blaine. The shoot comes just a few months after her 56th birthday, for which she posted an iconic 1980s photo of herself topless. Comparing the 1980s photo with the new ones, it’s clear to see that La Ciccone’s nips—as with her entire body, career, and global icon status—have stood up well to the test of time.
Protesters at work in the upcoming documentary Free the Nipple / Courtesy of Free the Nipple
But perhaps Madonna is aiming not just to show us how great she looks topless in her sixth decade but to make a cultural point. Perhaps, alongside such women as Lina Esco, director of the activist documentary Free the Nipple, she’s trying to force a turning point in terms of American fashion and media’s tortured relationship with frank nudity. Because, let’s face it, the nation still has a huge issue with the naked body—on or off the page—that simply doesn’t exist in Europe, the region of the world we most like to compare ourselves to when it comes to who’s more open, more forward, more sophisticated.
Lena Dunham texting topless in an episode of Girls / HBO
Even as American nakedness proliferates online, both crudely (in the case of porn) and stylishly (Instagram), and on cable TV, both idealized (Game of Thrones) and verité-style (the frequently naked Lena Dunham on Girls, or, now, Gaby Hoffmann on the new Amazon hit Transparent), commercial American advertising and fashion spreads barely budge. They may flirt with suggestions of nudity suggestion, but God forbid they show a female nipple—or anybody’s pubic hair, for that matter. (OK, let’s admit it, asses have become a bit more visible, even if they’re not usually as stupendous as Kim Kardashian’s.)
Why the nude taboo? Bram Dijkstra, professor emeritus at University of California-San Diego and author of Naked: The Nude in America, says that our puritanical censorship of the unclothed body goes back not to the Puritans per se, but to the rise of industrial capitalism and the bourgeois class in the mid-nineteenth century. “Suddenly there was a middle-class with disposable income who saw being tempted as a risk to losing their earning power,” he said. “Hence they became suspicious of sexual freedom, as suggested in the nude, which could only be controlled through Puritanism.”
Certain European countries such as France never became the global capitalist juggernaut that America did, he said, and hence never suffered anxiety that bodily charms would divest them of wealth.
Cristano Ronaldo nude on the cover of Spanish Vogue / Spanish Vogue
To fast-forward to today, perhaps that partly explains why French Vogue will do amazingly chic and sexy nude shoots with top models including Gisele Bündchen, Daria Werbowy, Sasha Pivovarova, and Lea T. Or why Kate Moss and soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo have both appeared naked in Spanish Vogue. Or why Karlie Kloss will go nude for Italian Vogue when neither American Vogue nor any other mainstream U.S. fashion magazines has ever featured straightforward nudity.
“I used to say, ‘No pink parts or cracks,"’ says Judith Puckett-Rinella, president of the art-book publisher Whisper Editions, of her time as photo director for both Vanity Fair and the New York Times’s fashion mag, T. She doesn’t think America is loosening up. “You probably see more nudity now than you did a few years back, but we still pipe up a lot with our puritanical nonsense. If everyone just gave a bit less of a shit about it, it wouldn’t be so taboo.”
Model Georgie Badiel by Sasha Eisenman for French Playboy / Sasha Eisenman
The nudity no-no in mainstream American fashion is all the more remarkable given the explosion of online nakedness, from art shots to leaked celeb images to the raunchiest porn and everything in between, in the past decade. Sasha Eisenman, who is among a new generation of young photographers for Playboy, says he thinks that, inevitably, commercial American media will have to allow some level of nudity.
"It’s being forced there by things like Instagram and other stuff where people are putting that kind of content out there themselves,” he says. And that, he notes, is because creating and looking at images of beautiful naked bodies is a fundamental human drive. “If I post an Instagram of me or my car, a few people like it, but really all it seems anyone wants to look at are my pictures of naked girls.”
And indeed, photographers like Eisenman and Henrik Purienne, who has also shot for Playboy, are bringing to female nude photography a natural-bodied, California-sunny vibe that evokes the classic imagery of the magazine’s ’60s-’70s heyday. Their work represents a return to a time before extreme bodily or digital enhancement. That more-is-more trend began in the late ’80s and steadily increased, says Puckett-Rinella, who looked through decades of Playboys while producing an arty special edition of the magazine. To hear her tell it, Kim Kardashian represents its apotheosis.
“I don’t feel they’re very erotic,” she says of the Paper images. “They’re very manufactured, and to me that takes away the eroticism of any photograph.”
Kate Moss on the cover of Playboy for their January/Febuary 2014 issue/ Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott
Not-so-manufactured were Mert and Marcus’s images of bunnied-up Kate Moss for Playboy’s 60th anniversary issue last year. Incredibly sexy and chic, with Moss, a 40-year-old mother, smokily pulling off all manner of fetish outfits including bunny ears and fishnet stockings with garters, the images provided a road map for a kind of nudity that’s both steamy and sophisticated, neither prurient and coy nor lowbrow and smutty.
The Moss shots “are the highwater mark of where we want to go,” Jimmy Jellinek, Playboy’s chief content officer, told me. “They could’ve been in W or Vogue.” He says that he wants the magazine to promote “a return to naturalism” and to portray silicone-free women who are “God-given gorgeous.” He continued, “When Hef [Playboy founder Hugh Hefner] created the concept of the girl-next-door in the 1950s, it was the idea that beauty is anywhere. It could be someone folding a sweater in a store or getting coffee in line. She’s appealing to both men and women. It’s freeing.”
Whether you’re talking about women or men, framing nudity like that—as something joyful, natural and normal—can make one feel almost wistful to not see more of it in mainstream fashion images.
“I think we will in the next 10 years,” says Eisenman. “American magazines will start looking and feeling more like European ones.” He’s already smacking his lips over the kind of shoots he’d like to do. “It would be very fun to do a shoot for a magazine like Elle and incorporate lush editorial where, maybe the girl is just putting on her shirt as she’s coming out of the water by the beach and her breasts are sandy and wet and you have this fantasy that maybe that’s your girlfriend that you’re on this trip with.”
Perhaps we’re already on our way. In September Kate Lanphear, the street-style icon with the punky, asymmetrical platinum haircut, left her post as fashion director of T, the New York Times’s style magazine, to become the editor of Maxim, a so-called “lad magazine” best known for putting highly airbrushed images of bikini-clad starlets like Megan Fox on its cover. It seemed a highly unlikely match of good taste and fratboy tawdriness.
Since then, Lanphear, who’s at work on the relaunch, has remained mum about her plans for the title, except to say, “I hope to cultivate and broaden Maxim’s coverage of style and culture.” Fashion-media watchers have wondered if she intends to take Maxim—which has managed to show its models in all manner of toplessness while never exposing a nipple, never mind the pubic area—more in the direction of Lui, its venerable French counterpart. In true Gallic fashion, that magazine has mastered the art of featuring gorgeous, fully naked women in a way that’s both frankly erotic (no coyly crossed arms or legs here) and incredibly chic and stylish.
Rihanna goes topless tastefully/ Lui Magazine
Last spring, one of Lui’s covers offered up a broodingly topless Rihanna, shot by Mario Sorrenti, in an homage to a 1972 cover that the singer reportedly wanted to recreate. Other covers have featured a fully naked Gisele Bündchen and Kate Moss, both shot by Mert and Marcus. Whereas Maxim seldom deviates from the bikini, Lui plays with every shade of toplessness and bottomless and has no problem presenting women in full birthday-suit splendor.
And to bring it all back to Madonna, who better than she—who showed American women they could be both sexy and sexual without being branded victims or sluts—to help the U.S. finally relax into the beauty of the naked body? She may already be succeeding. Whereas beautiful photos (taken in 1978) of a nude, 20-year-old Madonna caused a moral outcry when they surfaced in Playboy and Penthouse in 1985, early in her global fame, her latest topless foray in Interview seems to be eliciting a national cry of “You go, Grandma.” No less of a mainstream outlet than USA Today gushed ”She’s still got it” and “See it and weep, Kim Kardashian.” On Perez Hilton site, the harshest comment thus far is. “I wonder what it would look like without all the Photoshop.”
But for the most part, comments have been of the rah-rah variety, such as, on the fashion site Refinery 29, “She looks great. Yes, she is in her 50s but the lesson here is; Take care of yourself and you, too, can look that good at 50+.” All of which prompts a tantalizingly naked suggestion: Perhaps, after years of Puritanism and prurience, America is learning to stop worrying and love the nude.