Looking back at the short-lived craze for topless fashion and the public outrage that it caused.
1964 was a strange point in British history, caught between the first chinks of daylight peeping through a strict moral structure that had been in place for the entire 20th century and the coming sexual revolution in the hippy era. London wasn’t quite swinging in 1964, at least not as far as most people were concerned, but the age of repression and rationing (in all senses) was over. London had a vibrant nightlife, strip clubs and cabarets that were as exotic as anywhere else in the world, as the Christine Keeler affair had shown to a shocked and salacious Britain. The old rules were crumbling, but hadn’t quite collapsed.
Reflecting this new world and its many contradictions was the Mondo documentary London in the Raw, which looked at the nightspots, youth cults and hidden worlds of the capital. A decidedly lightweight knock-off of Mondo Cane tailored not to upset the delicate British censors, this Michael Klinger / Tony Tenser production is as contrived as any other Mondo movie, but despite that now stands as one of the most essential records of London nightlife in the mid-Sixties.
The film was something of a sensation at the time – hard as it might seem to believe now, back in the 1960s audiences lined the streets to watch documentaries that promised cynical sensationalism and possibly the odd naked girl. London in the Raw had a glittering premiere, one that attracted a great deal of tabloid attention – though that attention had nothing to do with the film itself.
1964 was also the year that the topless dress became a thing, taking inspiration from Rudi Gernreich’s scandalous monokini that had been launched that year. The monokini resulted in arrest for the first person to try it out in public, but the topless dress seemed an entirely media-led creation, worn almost exclusively by publicity-hungry models. Twenty-seven-year-old ‘housewife’ Diana Gorton wore one for a photo shoot on July 3rd on Westminster Bridge and was promptly arrested after the only two men in London who might find a topless woman upsetting complained to a policeman. One of them was elderly street photographer Leonard Winter, who indignantly told Gorton “you ought to be pinched” – he was talking about being arrested, but talk about Freudian slips. Interestingly, the dress was described as having “two straps, halter fashion, wide enough to conceal the nipples and part of the breast, but they left the side of the bosom exposed“. For this, Gorton was convicted of indecency and fined £2.4s. with a twelve-month conditional discharge.
A Marion Hodgkinson would later wear one on a visit to a beauty parlour – again, a photographer just happened to be in the vicinity (photos of both these publicity stunts seem lost in time, unfortunately). Sightings of topless dresses in the wild were reported without evidence, while the shops selling them reported small, but not immeasurable sales, possibly to suburban swingers who would wear them in the privacy of their own home or at wife swapping parties – another cultural phenomenon just starting to come into vogue.
Back to London in the Raw: sniffing a trend after the launch of the monokini, London’s Carnegie Models Ltd – described as a dress manufacturer, though the name suggests opportunist model agency – came up with the topless evening gown, and what better way to drum up publicity than by having it shown off at a film premiere?
Janie Jones – born Marion Mitchell – was a cabaret artist and party girl who was both keen on publicity and game for a laugh, and so both she and her younger sister Valerie – who knew Michael Klinger as the owner of the Gargoyle strip club and nightspot – agreed to show up at the July premiere in the topless dress, stepping out of the Rolls and allowing their fur wraps to slip, revealing their breasts. It was scandal a go-go – both women were arrested and charged with indecency. Their fines upon conviction were heftier than Mrs Gorton’s, a whopping £15 15s each – though the publicity that accrued from the case was worth much more than that, both for Jones and the film. Janie would go on to have a remarkable life, which we’ll come back to at some other time – hit singles, sex scandals and imprisonment, a relationship with Myra Hindley and songs about her by the likes of The Clash are among the highlights. She no longer does interviews, apparently, but if anyone could persuade her otherwise, we would be keen to talk.
Soon, the topless dress concept was enough of a phenomenon to be picked up on by actual film stars at bigger film premieres. Carroll Baker caused a sensation with her teasing transparent dress at the Los Angeles and London openings of The Carpetbaggers – mild stuff by modern red carpet appearance from attention-hungry stars, but scandalous at the time. By mid-July of 1964, the whole idea of the topless dress was so ingrained in the public consciousness that George Harrison’s mother could jokingly apologise for not wearing one at the premiere of A Hard Day’s Night, while the BBC took to the streets to find out if this would be the next fashion to sweep metropolitan Wolverhampton (short answer: no).
To the surprise of no-one, the topless dress craze was short-lived and essentially non-existent outside of the fevered imaginations of tabloid hacks. Within a few years, the whole shock over topless fashion already felt rather quaint as hippies let it all hang out and sex and nudity seemed to be everywhere. When The Sun introduced Page 3 girls in 1969, the sight of bare breasts over the kitchen table quickly became normal and unremarkable (until recent times, of course). But even in the liberated 1970s, the topless dress was never going to catch on, and with good reason – the problem with the idea is less to do with indecency and more to do with the fact that it seems a rather desperate way of getting attention. Topless dresses are just not very practical things to wear, by and large, and if women wanted to be exhibitionists, then the transparent look – as pioneered by Yves Saint Laurent in Paris – seemed both more subtle and more elegant.
The topless dress was quaint enough by 1984 to be trotted out as eccentric nostalgia on the BBC TV series The Time of Your Life, in which Noel Edmonds took a celebrity back to an important year in their lives. Vidal Sassoon was the guest being taken back to 1964, and as well as having Janie Jones popping up, it featured model Fiona Sloman (who was a Benny Hill ‘Hill’s Angel’ and a regular scantily clad bit of totty on British TV at the time) appearing in the studio wearing a topless dress, ostensibly to see if we still find such things shocking or not. Notably, this was an early evening family entertainment show – today, she’d probably be blurred out if it was allowed at all, but back then the mere sight of bare breasts wasn’t seen as a threat to civilisation. You can watch a recording of the moment below.
Of course, the idea has never quite gone away. Variations on the theme are still a great way for fashion designers to get press coverage – no fashion season is quite complete without at least one catwalk show in which the models expose their breasts in gratuitous outfits, though there is no longer the pretence that these clothes are aimed at mainstream acceptance. Celebrities can still garner column inches and photo spreads by turning up to award ceremonies and other events in outfits that barely cover their breasts – the more exposure of the body, the more exposure in the media, it seems, even in these newly moral #metoo days. And of course, latex versions of the topless dress are still popular at fetish events and sex parties, where they are unashamedly designed as exhibitionist sexual provocations. But, given that we are in an age where even topless sunbathing is increasingly frowned upon by the new puritan generation, it seems unlikely that any variation of the topless dress – even one that might deal with the impracticalities of the design for day to day use – will be making a comeback any time soon.