Reporting from Paris — "Sexual intercourse began in 1963," the poet Philip Larkin said of the revolution that liberated women and changed the world. And nowhere was that revolution more on display, literally, than on the beaches of the French Riviera, where the first bare breasts appeared just a year later.
Scandale! Some local mayors prohibited it, and the Interior Ministry declared it illegal. But as anyone who has visited a French beach in the last 40 years will know, public opinion was stronger than the bureaucrats' protests. Topless bathing became the norm and France the spiritual home of the monokini.
Nearly half a century later, however, the French have fallen out of love with naked breasts on the beach.
Scandale! An Ifop poll last year revealed that 24% of women were perturbed by toplessness on beaches — 37% when you added thong-clad buttocks — and 88% described themselves as pudique (which carries a range of meanings from modest to prudish).
Is it a conservative backlash, a reaction to health scares, or simply a dictate of fashion? Time to hit the plages to investigate.
First, Paris, where the urban beach on the Seine, in its ninth year, carries a ban on topless bathing. Mayor Bertrand Delanoe enforced this after the launch of the beach proved that Parisians found it perfectly normal to disport themselves in the city center as if they were in St. Tropez (which was, theoretically, the point of the beach in the first place).
"When I was a teenager, I did everything to get tan and attract guys, including going occasionally topless," said Dianne, 37, as she lounged under a parasol.
"But later in life you want to take better care of your health, and the fashion has changed. People talk more about the risks of UV rays," said the Parisian, who asked to withhold her last name.
Coralie Kosiada, 23, has never gone topless on a public beach, and doesn't plan to. "Honestly, I don't really like women who show their breasts," she said, pursing her lips and recoiling slightly. "There are not that many nice-looking breasts, so why display them? And it's a generational question. Mostly 50-year-old women do it. It's kind of passe."
Down in Cap Ferret, a fashionable resort on the Atlantic coast, covering up is definitely the norm. A group of teenagers, ages 16 to 18, concurred enthusiastically. "Yes it's true. We don't go topless," said Lola. "Well, we do but only when we're together, without men around."
"Older women do it openly, we do it secretly," said Julia. And why do it at all? "Because strap marks are ugly!"
Nothing to do with feminism, then — the political liberation of '68 and Maoist egalitarianism posited by Paris Match in 1970 as a possible explanation of the phenomenon?
"They did it to show their assets, to attract men," Fanny said. "But we don't like men staring. It might have been OK when everyone was doing it, but today if you walked to the sea topless you'd be stared at. It would be an event."
It calls for the sangfroid of someone like Béatrice, 37, who was sunbathing topless with her teenage sons. Proving both modest and unperturbed, she responded with characteristic French frankness: "I normally wear a bikini, I find it prettier, but today I decided to go topless. It's true that younger girls aren't doing it anymore, it's more normal for my generation. It doesn't bother me one way or the other."
A neighboring group in their late 30s eagerly entered into the discussion. "It's true we're more prudish today," said Sophie, 39. "It's just not attractive, older women with bare breasts on the beach." One of the men, Pascal, chimed in with the socio-political angle: "It was the '70s, female liberation, the pill and all that."
This being France, of course learned books have been published on the subject.
Reluctantly, perhaps, Christophe Granger, author of last year's "Summer Bodies" and Jean-Claude Kaufmann, who published his "Women's Bodies, Men's Glances" a full 15 years ago, are vying for the title of intellectual spokesman on the return of the bikini top.
"The aspiration for summer nudity is too deeply written into the body's desires for the practice to disappear," Kaufmann told the magazine Psychologies. "But it's true that in 15 years the cultural markers have completely changed. What was hip is now out of style. Young women in particular are quick to stigmatize 'old' (at 50!) ones who dare to take off their bikini tops."
Neither sociologist was able to give further comment, being, as Kaufmann said, "on vacation."
So, allow us to draw our own conclusions. The French are aesthetically minded. Tan breasts used to be pretty, and now they are not, especially on an older body. Even Elle magazine has relinquished its habitual topless cover and is featuring pretty 50s-style frilly bikinis. Maybe feminism doesn't really enter the equation, and it really was a case of what looked good.
Which leads to one more question: Why, then, the insistence on tight Speedos for men in French swimming pools, a taste bypass that all too often finds its way onto the beach? But that's another story.
Culliford is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Devorah Lauter contributed to this report.