During the Jacobean period, Inigo Jones' masque costume designs for women almost all reveal their breasts:
Some of them simply bare the breast, others cover it only with a fine, gauzy fabric, but in either case, there's no ambiguity – the whole breast is shown.
This is so at odds with our ideas about historical modesty that many people find it hard to believe that he meant these designs to be taken literally.
So, is he using artistic license? Or did he really intend these great ladies of the court to be topless? And if he did, is that what happened, or did said ladies take his designs and have them made up with a slightly more modest line?
Unfortunately, we have very few actual portraits of people in masque costumes. Here are those I've found from the Jacobean court, roughly in date order:
The two ladies in matching costume are the ones with the best provenance, as we know for sure that they're wearing masque costumes – specifically from the Masque of Hymenaei. More on them here. Most of the others have been identified as masque costumes based on what we know about masque costumes, rather than because they were labelled as such.
So we don't have designs that we can conveniently match to any of them (we do know that Jones designed the Hymenaei costumes, but the designs have been lost).
But although it's the only one, it's very clear. Under the fine chemise, her breasts are clearly on display. The all'antica bodice has been deliberately cut to reveal them.
With some of the other miniatures, it's unclear how the bodice is cut, either because it's below the frame, or because it's covered by a mantle. So I don't think we can use any of them as evidence against bare-breastedness.
Still – the full-length portraits all cover the bust, following the same line as that of ordinary fashionable clothing. So what's the dealio?
Barbara Ravelhofer addresses this question in her excellent book, The Early Stuart Masque. She points out that, in Europe, men performing en travesti as women wore prosthetic breasts made of plaster or fabric, or covered the decolletage with flesh-coloured fabric. Also, in English masques, 'skin coats' of flesh-coloured fabric were used where nakedness was required. And an antimasquer in Salmacida Spolia playing a Fury wore a skin coats which included sagging breasts hanging to the knees.
So, Ravelhofer wonders whether the ladies of the court might also have worn prosthetic breasts when masquing.
But I'm not convinced by that idea. Designs for skin coats show clear edges at neck and wrist – in this design for a fiery spirit, the skin coat (compete with nipples) is clearly drawn, being a different colour from the dancer's own flesh, and having edges.
I've even seen this effect on a female costume – Penthiselea of the Amazons, from the Masque of Queens, looks to be wearing a breastplate with nipples. This is a distinctly different look from the designs at the top of the page, which look to me to show real breasts.
The past is a foreign country
I personally suspect that female masquers did go topless, just not universally.
And I think that most of our scepticism about the idea is simply us imposing our ideas about historical modesty onto people from another time.
The fact is, Jacobean ladies were known for displaying a great deal of breast even in ordinary fashionable clothing. Visitors to the London court often commented in their letters home on the liberal decolletage on display there (the Venetian Ambassador famously described Queen Anne's as 'bare down to the pit of her stomach'), and portraits of the time certainly show plenty of breast, in many cases only just covering the nipple. And according to Bayles Dictionnaire, in 1616 an English woman caused a scandal in Paris with her 'nude' cleavage.
As for masques specifically, the Venetian Ambassador attending Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue in 1618 said that 'the plump and buxom display their bosoms very openly'.
Of course, we can never be sure exactly what was meant by this: whether he meant that the whole breast was bare, or just that he was seeing more of it than was usually shown in Venice. But these incidents do show that the Jacobeans had a more liberal approach to decolletage than we usually believe people in the past to do, and more liberal than that of neighbouring countries.
The liminal factor – performance as a world separate from the every day
For me, it's entirely understandable that a court where plenty of decolletage is the fashion would not consider it inappropriate to reveal the whole bosom within the context of a performance.
Why? Because it's always been the norm to wear more revealing clothes in performance than would be acceptable in ordinary fashion. Just think of those Victorian circus performers in their leotards.
We can still see this today. Here's an example from my own experience. I dance Argentine tango socially, and every now and then a visiting couple of teachers will dance one or two tangos as an exhibition at a milonga (a milonga being the tango equivalent of a disco). It's very common for the lady in that case to wear something vastly more revealing than she would on the social dancefloor, and in fact after the performance she'll change back into her normal tango clothes before she starts dancing socially. If a woman accidentally shows her underwear while tangoing socially, much embarrassment will ensue. But the same woman, in the same venue, on the same night, won't be at all bothered if we can see her underwear during an exhibition, and nor will any of the spectators.
There's just a kind of special license attached to performing. It's similar to the special license we allow for artwork. So those masquing ladies, performing in very erudite, classically themed masques, wearing costumes intended to represent nymphs or queens from classical antiquity – it only makes sense that greater nudity would be acceptable within that context.
My best evidence
There's one particular bit of evidence, though, that really convinces me that Jones meant those designs to be made up exactly as he'd drawn them. It's his designs for Henrietta Maria in the Masque of Chloris.
And on the right is his revised sketch, in which he's raised the bodice to cover the nipples.
If he intended his designs to be taken as artistic licence – if he knew that the ladies of the court would take his designs and have them made up to a more modest style – why would he bother revising that line? He wouldn't. There'd be no point.
So I'm convinced that this alteration proves that his designs were being taken literally.
Incidentally, after James and Anne were succeeded by Charles and Henrietta Maria, Jones' designs started changing too. The topless designs started to be replaced by designs which covered the bust. I theorise that this corresponds to a change in fashion led by Henrietta Maria. But whatever the cause, the fact that these later designs covered the bust convinces me that the earlier designs were meant to be taken literally.
But I do suspect that the toplessness wasn't universal during the Jacobean period. After all, we have several paintings, apparently in masque costume, where the bodice follows the normal fashionable line. Perhaps this may be a question of individual taste. Or perhaps it's just that not all masques were as high-faluting as the famous Jonson/Jones ones.
Ultimately, we have so few portraits of masque costume that we simply don't have a significant sample set. So I suspect this is a question that will never be settled.