Writing that headline, I realized for the first time how much Nicholas Sarkozy reminds me of Richard Nixon. The shrewdest step of his political brand was marrying former Italian supermodel Carla Bruni. The closest Nixon came to a fashion statement was his defense of Pat’s plain cloth coat in the Checkers speech.
No one ever said of Mrs. Nixon what wags are asking about Mrs. Sarkozy after a revealing display of fashionista power (left) at the Elysee Palace. The occasion was a state dinner for Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. The vehicle was a form-fitting Roland Mouret dress that begged the question, “Should Carla Bruni have worn a bra?”
No, says Hannah Betts, who argues that “when Carla brandishes her bosom, she is merely the latest in an august line of Gallic consorts who have proffered their breasts to suggest physical and political prowess.” The line stretches back to Diane de Poitiers.
Yes, counters Sarah Vine: “When it comes to breasts, I’m a firm believer in that old saying: a place for everything — and everything in its place.”
NO, LET IT LOOSE, SAYS HANNAH BETTS
My circumstances being what they are — thirties, single, fashion flighty — my underwear rivals Agent Provocateur HQ in its embrace of wisp and frippery. Undergarments allow for all manner of tacit deviance — transparency, quarter cups, matching one’s smalls to one’s heels — and, of course, the ultimate deviance of eschewing it altogether.
For, like Carla Bruni (or, as a 34D/E, perhaps not quite like Carla), I will go sans brassière should the occasion demand. Often this will be a matter of practicality: a backless number, or plunging sweater, both discreetly low-key until one realises the degree of nudity required. At times, it will simply be a case of mood. An over-theshoulder boulder holder may be risqué in a camp, seaside postcard sort of a way. However, there is a sinuous sensuality to shedding one’s underpinnings and letting the body speak.
Our culture is obsessed with heaving, blancmangey cleavage, but the erect nipple is a far more potent yet insouciant sexual signifier. The pert pap winningly protrudes between the sluttish and the demure: contained arousal, clothed incitement; an invitation more beguiling for being a whisper rather than a shout.
Moreover, when Carla brandishes her bosom, she is merely the latest in an august line of Gallic consorts who have proffered their breasts to suggest physical and political prowess. Most prominent were the orb-bosomed Agnès Sorel, paramour to Charles VII; Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henri II, who fashioned his goblet on her breast; and erect-nippled Gabrielle d’Estrées, the distraction of Henri IV. Like the third Mrs Sarko, all revealed their embonpoint as a means of signalling youthfulness and a provocatively literal grip on power.
Done right, breast-baring’s strategic value is unrivalled. That said, in the brouhaha over Carla’s bralessness, no one has remarked that she doubtless also went knickerless.
It may have been the brassière that Sixties feminists forsook as an emblem of oppression, but briefs beat bras for awkwardness and sheer bloody discomfort. Many of us go pantless far more regularly than we go braless. But, that, of course, is another story.
YES, IT WAS A BOOB, SAYS SARAH VINE
Somewhere around the age of 17, for about ten minutes, I think I had the kind of self-supporting breasts required to carry off a braless existence. In a word (or three): small, neat, pert.
Then I must have walked to the shops, or performed some other inadvisable form of mild physical activity, because next time I looked it wasn’t so much the mythical pencil I could hold underneath them, as an entire box of felt-tip pens.
Since then, I have led an entirely underwired existence. When I was pregnant, and my breasts swelled to about eight times their normal size, I actually wore two bras for a while, since wires were banned and one just wasn’t enough to maintain a reliable degree of stability.
While breastfeeding, the darn things were so sore that I slept in my bra, since even the tiniest movement in bed led to a throbbing pain. It also made it far easier to contain the cabbage leaves that I was assured would alleviate my mastitis (they didn’t: all that happened was that the smell of hot cabbage joined the aroma of baby vomit in a uniquely unalluring, not to say toxic, mixture).
A bra for me, therefore, is not so much something that I associate with fashion; more with comfort and practicality. Without a bra, I don’t feel free, or sexually empowered, I just feel vulnerable. My body feels messy and unruly. I am reminded of an elderly balloon, or yesterday’s dim sum. My waist disappears, and I look even more like I’m wearing a false stomach than usual.
With everything nicely under control, encased in cotton, Lycra and metal, however (I swear by Panache’s Tango bra, £24 from bravissimo.com, brilliantly crafted, long-lasting and very comfortable) I find myself brimming with confidence. When it comes to breasts, I’m a firm believer in that old saying: a place for everything — and everything in its place.
I’m imagining how the Tea Party folks (there must be an Abigail Adams impersonator among them ) will go gaga if Ms. Bruni wears the dress at a White House state dinner later this month.