The Original Topless Maillot
Our story begins with the topless maillot, before it is ever called a T-front. Species classification is one of the hallmarks of Bikini Science, but given the complexity of our subject, let us postpone that discussion for a few paragraphs.
The invention of the topless maillot--and by this we mean a one-piece maillot swimsuit that bares the breasts--is credited to fashion designer Rudi Gernreich. His 1964 creation attempts to address the socialization of a woman baring her breasts, be it at the beach or the dinner party. His solution is a unique one-piece T-front strapped maillot swimsuit that bares the breasts, but is not simply a bikini sans top.
Gernreich's topless maillot creation is pop culture phenomena, and as fashion it challenges assumptions about society, fashion, and the play of the sexes.
The sequence of events which involve the run-up of the topless maillot are recounted in detail in the early 1960s of the Time Machine. These events include the arrest of Toni Lee Shelley on Chicago's North Beach lakefront (TL6410), the story behind the Peggy Moffitt photographs (PM6410), and the manner in which the national family magazines Look and Life handle the topless issue when they cover this breaking news story.
Life's coverage features a delicate Peggy Moffitt crossing her arms across bare breasts. (Moffitt, a Gernreich confident, also models the t-front maillot without her arms crossed, but not for Life magazine.) Life delves into the history of toplessness, and handles the exposure in a variety of ways: The editors do portray bare breasts in an underwater view (L196410) and show the backside of a lady in a fitting room (L196420).
Gernreich's fashion statement produces international ripples and an interesting blend of treatments for how bare breasts are handled in media. French fashion magazine Elle places a banner across the breasts (EL6401), while Esquire shows a side view of ladies relaxing at the pool, but with nipples obscured (ES6410). Playboy, a "girlie book," to use an attribution of Peggy Moffitt, is late to the game and repeats the underwater motif (PB6505).
Gernreich's prediction that the topless maillot is the next wave of fashion is dead wrong--at least for the moment. But he does have the topless part right, although when it does occur with the advent of the topless bikini, it evolves a bit differently. But none of this detracts from the impact.
The T-Front Topless Maillot Defined
The naming of the topless maillot species is a topic that has remained confused since its inception. The term topless maillot, although connoting the Gernreich silhouette, may actually entail a wide variety of species. Is the topless maillot simply a topless bikini (an oxymoronic concept)? Or is it a monokini or unikini as some have suggested?
In Bikini Science Gernreich's topless maillot is called a t-front maillot, or a T-front topless maillot, and it is but one of several maillot species that bare the breasts and are indeed topless. In nothing else the proliferation of species has driven this clarification. It is the shape of the T-front that gives it its eventual name, although this parlance does not emerge until the middle 1980s, when the Gernreich silhouette re-emerges in bikini fashion, detailed shortly. Let us examine some of the issues of classifying this most famous species.
Actually, closer analysis suggests that the T-front maillot is not as difficult a species to clarify as once thought. The argument has been made that the T-front should be classified as a bikini because it is sometimes paired with a top which may indeed cover the breasts. These observers note that a topless bikini is a culotte barebreasted and one piece, and that the topless T-front maillot is also a barebreasted and one piece. But straps the maillot make; it is not a culotte. T-front has straps that go about the neck or the shoulders. And whereas a culotte has three edges (two legholes and a waistband), the t-front maillot has five: the two legholes, the two armholes (the skin that lies outside the straps), and the neckline, defined by the continuous edge which outlines the inner part of the body (up the center chest, around the neck and down the back to the waistline. (A haltered t-front has one edge less, or four edges, and is not a culotte either. More on it later.)
Some scholars have also sought to classify the T-front as a monokini--a bikini consisting of only one piece. But this term suggests the bottom half of a bikini and is a shorthand for a topless bikini. The argument that the topless maillot is a one piece and therefore a monokini is specious; by this definition all maillots are monokinis, and that is shirley not the intention of the term.
The Gernreich Fashion Lines
The outlines of the Gernreich topless maillot speak to many of the issues it raises (PM6410). Why it is a hybrid and how it is deployed.
The topless maillot addresses the whole body, and although a maillot typically covers the breasts, pelvis and hips it can elude any of these: the maillot tanga doesn't cover the butt (TLA); and the topless maillot doesn't cover the top (TLB).
Gernreich leaves the leglines pretty much era--sort of the panty line arching from level at the crotch. But he shifts the waistline radically upward--up to the ribs, and then casts two narrow straps that begin in the front middle and race up and past the neck and down the backside, securing again on the raised waistline. Because the waistline is raised, the straps keep the swimsuit levitated, and leave the breasts bare. Whereas the bikini bottoms of the area are lowering waistlines, Gernreich's silhouette raises the waistline, covering the belly and pubis. It is the opposite of a culotte nombril sans top.
The Carol Doda Fashion Lines
The Gernreich topless maillot is also allegedly the swimsuit that Carol Doda integrates into her swim girl dance act at the Condor Club in San Francisco, and in doing so brings forth the era of topless bar dancing. Doda does double duty as a celebrity who grows her boob size during the same summer of 1964, but there are characteristics of Doda's topless maillots that make one wonder about their Gernreich pedigree.
Doda's topless maillots may be dated along a continuance of her breast inflation. One of her earliest costumes is a more bulky affair with an only slightly raised waistline and wide straps--straps that can play over the nipples during the dance act (CD6460). But the significant deviation from the Gernreich pattern is the legline, which arches up the front along the inguinal and bares much of the butt on the way down the back, an idiom which continues into her next generation t-front, with narrower straps, a higher front, and more stretch fabric (CD6470). Still another costume, possibly later still, shows a more consolidated T-front, equally topless and equally hi-leglined and tanga (CD6540). When asked about the difference Doda told the Chief Bikini Scientist, "maybe it was the French version. I danced all the time on a piano. One day they said to me, 'Here's your new swimsuit!' and that's what I wore for the next year."
Gernreich can lay claim to the topless maillot swimsuit, but in fact his T-front silhouette may be found deep in the annuals of stage costumes, such as the costumes worn by the dancers Melle. Poty (#4) or Yetta (#51) at the Casino de Paris (CP2000), or by Josephine Baker at the Folies-Bergères, also in Paris (JB2720). And although here is no shortage of topless dancers and pinups in the early part of the 20th century, including unbuttoned maillots (e.g., VG1030), honest-to-goodness topless maillots are non-existent. A very rare exception is Super Girl 766, who wears a genuine shoulder strap topless maillot (VG00T0_0766).
More Topless Maillots
Gernreich's topless maillot produces a flurry of innovations. Aside from the streamlined Doda cut, several other topless species erupt. One is the shoulder-strapped topless maillot, since named the suspender maillot and classified as its own species. It emerges as a novelty item in 1965 as an alternate to Gernreich's center-strapped topless maillot design (PB6510). Like the Gernreich approach, the suspender embraces the concept of the maillot, but involves repositioning the shoulder straps so they rise from the sides of the low-rise waistline instead of from the high front middle of the garment. The wide shoulder straps of the suspender sort of cover the nipples but provide no support for the breast. Both silhouettes can have T-backs. The T-front may also be simply haltered (RV7920A), whereas the suspender maillot always carries the straps back down to the waistline.
Other topless maillot silhouettes include the torpedo (related to the suspender but absent a waistband), the mercurial I-front, the maillot halftop (which bares one breast), the maillot rolldown (which enables the wearer to uncover and cover up), and the maillot cutout, which bares patches of skin (but with a different design philosophy). Cutouts include front and center symmetries are unusual, while other late 1960s cutouts involve center rings and side cutouts which resonate with the T-front. (BZ6805, CK6810). One specialized cutout is the boobless maillot, in which the nipples or breasts of the maillot are simply cut out (AB9315, JE9354, LK9340).
Of all the topless styles on all the topless beaches, only the boobless maillot has failed to bridge the gap between the pinup picture and the real beach. Public exposures of breast seem to survive best when they are totally unabashed, and the framing of the breasts in the boobless may be over the top. None the less, given that the beach has stolen toplessness as well as the g-string, and shows breasts, bellies, and buttocks, perhaps nothing is impossible and a showcasing of the breast and/or nipple remains a design space for future bikiniites, and not just pinup beauties.
The Topless Beach Emerges
Gernreich had been exploring the topless swimsuit before his center-strap creation; these ideas involves what one might call a cape coupled with a rather typical culotte nombril (PM6405). Until now the topless bikini is strictly a pinup vehicle, confined to girlie magazines, if not underground,
The irony of the topless maillot is that although it is a economic failure and fashion dead end, that the baring of breasts on beaches will become de rigeur. And in a much more simply way: the top half of the bikini is simply discarded.
As with all things in history there is a tendency to attempt to identify origin points, and in the case of the topless bikini it is hard to find a better legend that Brigitte Bardot at St. Tropez in the late 1960s (BB6710). This story, indeed the entire evolution of the topless movement, is ably described in the network of pages that includes her story, the topless costume itself, and the location.
The topless story is a complex and rich one: Gernrich's T-front topless maillot is an important catalyst, and in the years since many alternatives to simply shedding the top half of the bikini have emerged.
T-Front Layering Mechanics
In the post-topless late 1980s the forgotten T-front maillot is rediscovered; it is a time when swimsuit designers are seeking new silhouettes. Besides the strong centerline focus (RT85DB), the defining characteristics include a high waistline and bulk (EM8908), and an ability to combine with an optional top, typically a strapped bra (CS8420, FI8820, JD89A0), bandeau (RP8810, EL8950), cropped tank (EL8802), wet t-shirt (EM9020), or vest, which when worn overtop and left open, invites casual topless.
In all of these situations one enters the realm of a layered swimsuit. The T-front is provides a rare silhouettes in which layering plays a role (RD8725). Two choices are presented to the maillotite--she may wear the soutien-gorge beneath, or on top of, the center-strap. Fashion-wise, the strap is most visual lying on the top, but the alternate choice is tempting in topless cultures, where the top may want to be doffed and donned. Wearing the top underneath requires fasteners on the top and alter the calculus of changing. Soutien-gorge worn overtop are easiest to remove so the maillotite can wear the t-front with no top at all.