A Brief History of How Times Square Got So Naked

Headshot of Robert Klara

“Free your mind! Free your nipples!” yelled one woman.

“I’m here to watch tits,” announced a man nearby.

This was Sunday. The occasion: New York’s Topless Parade, a procession of about 300 women who tromped their way through Times Square, the Crossroads of the World. While the parade is annual, this year’s mob-sized turnout came on the heels of last week’s promise by Mayor Bill de Blasio to crack down on bare-chested women—specifically, those who don body paint and pose for photos with wide-eyed tourists.

“This situation is going to change,” the mayor raged to the Observer. “I’m not going to tolerate it.” 

Welcome to Times Square: Crossroads of the Unclothed. (Stick around, there's a slide show below.)

In case you’ve missed the news for the last two weeks, the legendary neighborhood has lately become a pilgrimage for the peeled. In addition to topless female panhandlers, there’s 69-year-old Claire Hogenauer, a former criminal-defense attorney who sat at one of the Square’s sidewalk tables over the weekend and let it all hang out.

Last summer, the Young Naturists took it all off and, following some adornment by body painter Andy Golub, took their smiles and their genitals over to Times Square. (This year, the group trotted over to the U.N. instead.) Visit Times Square on any given day and you can not only catch the act of Naked Cowboy and his clones, but the guitar strumming of any number of Naked Cowgirls, too. In fact, nudity has become so commonplace, even some ordinary visitors are stripping down to little more than Speedos.

So here’s the question of the hour: How did Times Square get so naked, anyway? What made it the strip of the stripped? The den of the denuded? The Garment District without the garments?

'People want to be shocked'

Noted New York photographer Ben Orlansky, who counts Times Square among his many haunts, says that naked people are merely the logical evolution of where the neighborhood was bound to wind up anyway.

“Brashness, at least in part, is why tourists come here,” Orlansky says. “They want to see things they haven’t seen before, and there’s a constant need to up the shock ante. People want to be shocked, and Times Square delivers.”

In fact, Times Square has always delivered. Those who blush over all the recent neighborhood nudity might benefit from a reminder that the area has actually been naked for a long time. Even leaving out the district’s notorious peep shows, X-rated movie theaters and adult bookstores that proliferated in the 1960s and '70s, “Times Square has historically been a place where it’s OK to push boundaries and break the rules when it comes to sex, art and entertainment,” said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance.

So far as public nudity goes, however, if you’re looking for what started all of it, you can pretty much blame advertising.

In 1982, Calvin Klein unveiled a gargantuan billboard showing Tom Hintnaus, champion of the Olympic pole-vaulting team, in nothing but his white briefs. Underwear ads were nothing new to the Square, but Hintnaus’ briefs were especially well filled. The bulge stopped traffic and, as author Michael Bronski writes, the ad at once “seemed to symbolize how far the eroticized white male body had come into mainstream culture.”

As you can see in our slideshow below, it only got more graphic from there.

Naked Cowboy: 'Don't blame me'

In 1998, Times Square's nudity moved from the ads to the streets when a man named Robert John Burck blew in from Venice Beach, Calif., wearing little more than boots, briefs, a hat and a guitar. Naked Cowboy, as he’s known, has been playing in the Square ever since. “This is a great damn gig,” Burck told Adweek—but he takes no credit for inspiring the widespread nudity in Times Square today. “I hear all day long: ‘You started all of it!’” he said. “But I’m sure someone has been naked in Times Square before me.”

No doubt—but a lot more people have been naked after Burck—both on the sidewalk and on billboards.

Nudists descended on the Square in 2011, sporting body paint—a performance that got artist/organizer Andy Golub arrested, but also set an important precedent. With leverage applied by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the city held that public nudity isn’t illegal if it can be construed as part of an artistic expression. (Police commissioner Bill Bratton told CBS, “We cannot find any law that allows us to interfere with that freedom of expression reflective through art form.”)

Golub wonders why people make such a fuss about skin on the sidewalk when skin on huge signs has been looking down on the square for decades now. “It’s ironic that people who complain about nudity on the street don’t notice these giant billboards with sexual images,” Golub said. “It’s also funny how people are upset about exposed breasts when I’ve painted fully nude men and women in Times Square many times.”

Different rules for different genders?

There does seem to be a double standard when it comes to objections about nudity—which is the essence of what the topless women (painted or otherwise) have been arguing. “Men can walk around shirtless all the time. Why can’t we?” asked one participant in the Topless Parade this past weekend. (For the record, it isn’t illegal for women to be topless in New York City.)

But there’s been little consistency to the argument. When the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals launched an anti-wool campaign just before Christmas last year, it produced two video billboards featuring adult models—one male, one female—wearing mostly unbuttoned thermals and scratching themselves. (The tagline: "Scratch Wool From Your Shopping List.") But to Neutron Media, the sign’s owner, the male crotch was just a hair over the line, and PETA was forced to leave him out.

No matter. PETA’s svp of campaigns Dan Mathews says that the wool campaign was just one of a long line of marketing efforts featuring naked people, and the tactic works every time. “There have been studies that show the majority of people, when looking at an image, will always gravitate to the crotch,” he said. (That's true, you can read one here.) “In places like Times Square, where you have floor-to-ceiling images bombarding you, what are you going to look at soonest?”

After the crotch ad setback of Christmas 2014, PETA returned in 2015 with a 90-foot-tall billboard showing pop star Pink posing only in her birthday suit. “We’ve had naked people painted white and we’ve had women in lettuce bikinis,” Mathews added. “Does it cheapen our message? Yes, but it also lets us reach more people.” (Pink’s ad—a side view showing her with her knees drawn up—recalled a similar ad in 2012 where Rihanna sat in the same pose to promote her perfume Rebelle.)

Is nudity here to stay?

For PETA, the sight of unclothed people dovetails nicely with the organization’s core messages of not wearing animal skins and how a vegan diet will help you lose the flab. But when it comes to the current vanguard of painted topless ladies—frequently “wearing” the American stars and stripes—there’s really no brand message involved.

The women pose for photos in exchange for money. It’s a hustle. And it’s the nature of that transaction that has the mayor, the tabloids and plenty of other people so upset.

Some see it as a civil rights issue. (“If it’s OK for the Naked Cowboy to be topless, then it should be OK for the girls,” artist Golub said, “with or without paint.”) But the Times Square Alliance’s Tompkins sees it as panhandling: “It's breaking the law,” he said, and “thousands of people are victimized daily.”

Whatever the mayor and the police decide to do—and, legally, it may not be much—it seems clear that the Era of the Disrobed is probably here to stay. And, photographer Orlansky asks, what's the big deal with that?

"Parents panic and cover their children's eyes while they hurry them in the opposition direction of the nude models," he said. "Yet I've seen them turn their heads to look back, usually unsuccessfully hiding smiles."

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.