The French are credited with many great inventions, such as the bicycle, pasteurization, the barometer and, more recently, the 36-hour work week, but one cultural contribution that rarely makes it into the history books is sunbathing au naturel.
Of course, the French were not the first people to frolic on the beach in a state of semi-undress--the Polynesians after all have been doing it for millennia. But what the French did was popularize it, to make it, as they make so many things, chic.
This laissez-faire attitude towards topless tanning is largely due to French actress Brigitte Bardot, who came to embody (pun intended) the sexy, laid-back spirit of Saint-Tropez on France's Cote d'Azur. In 1952, a two-piece bathing suit that would be considered modest by today's standards was then seen as being controversial, but Bardot and other young starlets such as Ursula Andress would pose for photographers at Cannes wearing the tiniest bikinis imaginable.
By the 1960s, it was common to see starlets tanning topless on the beaches and yachts in and around the Riviera. Today, even though many people still prefer to keep their suits in place, practically every beach along Europe's long Mediterranean coastline is clothing-optional.
With a few exceptions, one place where bikini tops remains firmly in place is the U.S. Avant garde fashion designer Rudi Gernreich made waves in 1964 when he created the topless bathing suit, which was modeled by his wife Peggy Moffett. Although many magazines picked up the story and ran an image, according to the Web site BikiniScience.com, Life magazine refused to publish the full photograph with the explanation that, "This is a family magazine, and naked breasts are only allowed if the woman is an aborigine."
Fast forward about 40 years, and some American beaches, such as Miami's South Beach, as well as Black's Beach in San Diego, have adopted a more casual approach to toplessness. There are also dozens of naturalist resorts in the U.S.--"naturalists" are full nudists--but in many places public nudity is still prohibited by law and carries a major fine. Throughout most of Europe, South America and parts of the Caribbean, it's a very different story--at least on the beach.
Unsurprisingly, taking it off is taking off with the travel industry. The Kissimmee, Fla.-based American Association for Nude Recreation estimates that nude travel is a $400 million global industry--up from $300 million in 2001.
Below is a list of some of the best beaches to perfect the no-tan-line tan, whether you prefer to take it off, or take it in. Remember to bring plenty of SPF and watch out for people lurking with telephoto lenses.