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A Brief History of Nakedness

by Philip Carr-Gomm

Book Review by Rob Hardy


A Brief History of Nakedness

If you are like me, you take off all your clothes in order to change into other clothes, to bathe, to sleep, or to make love.  You do not get naked to advance your religion, nor promote a good harvest, nor to support a political or social cause, nor gain money, nor participate in artistic display.  There are, however, plenty of people who have done such things and continue to do so.  In fact, throughout history people have taken their clothes off for reasons more than quotidian, and in fact, a history could be written about such stripping, and in fact, such a history has been written.  A Brief History of Nakedness (Reaktion Books) by Philip Carr-Gomm is full of surprising reasons people get naked, and funny ones, and practical ones, and sensual ones, and many more.  What might have seemed a topic that was too simple to repay extended thought turns out to have many subtle (and not-so-subtle) facets.  The author, who has written many serious and academic tomes, says that when his friends learned the subject of his newest book, they wanted to know what could possibly be said about it.  He has found plenty to say, and for the most part avoids any academic stuffiness; this book is as fun as history gets.

One reason that Carr-Gomm can exploit the subject in so many ways is that it is universal; all of us get naked from time to time.  Another reason is that the subject is full of contradictions.  Without your clothes, you might well be embarrassed in some situations, or you might feel confident and powerful in others.  Religion has emphasized the shamefulness and lust associated with a naked body, and yet some highly religious people have abandoned clothes in a show of innocence, lack of shame, or denial of materialism.  Nakedness can mean abjection, with nothing left to lose, but it may also be a show of power, which makes it good for political protest.  Being naked is often quite the antithesis of titillation, as visitors to nudist camps will tell you, and yet in most places in the world, if you take off your clothes in public you will be arrested.  (Notable exception: Public nudity is a recognized right in Barcelona.)

It is famously known that witches practiced their wicked rituals naked; there are plenty of pictures from the time of the Witch Craze to show us how they did so.  There is scant evidence, however, that there was any sort of an actual witch religion.  Far more likely is that any depravity of witchery was found in the minds of the witch-hunters, who were happy to imagine their prey committing all wickedness, and naked to boot.  The belief of naked witches did give such artists as Dürer an acceptable reason to portray female nudes.  Nakedness has been used as part of an initiation rite, as can be seen in the puzzling frescoes of Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries, and in Mithraic cults, and even in Freemasonry.  Carr-Gomm himself is a participant in modern Druidism, which sometimes fosters naked ceremonies, but the modern Wiccan movement is more famous for ceremonies performed “skyclad.”  It is a surprise that this term, which Carr-Gomm rightly says “is so much more romantic and poetic than the starker terms naked or nude,” is actually borrowed from Indian religion, some of whose followers are known by a word denoting “clothed with the quarters of the sky.”  It is more of a surprise to recognize the role of nakedness in more familiar religions that are not known to promote the shunning of clothes.  There must be sects nowadays that baptize only naked candidates, but the early church drew on Jewish immersion rituals that required nakedness; St. Hippolytus of Rome, for instance, wrote around 200 CE that those to be baptized had to be without clothes, and also the women without jewelry.  St. Cyril a century or so afterwards said that such nakedness for baptism was an imitation of Christ’s nakedness on the cross.  Isaiah underwent three years of nakedness as “a sign and wonder,” and in the seventeenth century, other Christians were shocked when some Quakers explicitly followed his example.    

Such nakedness partakes in the contraries of humility and power, a two-fold punch that protesters have used effectively.  One of the most famous examples of this probably never happened.  Lady Godiva sympathized with tax protesters, but her husband said he’d only change the tax laws after she rode through the streets of Coventry naked.  Naked people, especially naked women, have ever since used the power of being in public to get their points across without even the defense of clothes.  An antiwar protest group Breasts not Bombs happily displays the former, with the sensible idea that anyone offended by seeing a breast but not by seeing young men killed in warfare needs an adjustment of opinion.  In India in 2004, forty women marched naked to protest murders and rapes by soldiers.  The protest was reported, but few Indian papers carried photos of the women, with one commentator noting that the press could not abide showing naked women protesting, but delighted in showing cheesecake of naked women deliberately posing.  There are many protests of this type, of varying degrees of importance and indignation, but most of them seem to have been initiated by women, not men.  It is a Godiva syndrome: “... the act of a woman deliberately baring herself in order to make a statement is more powerful than if a man were to do the same, and indicates a deep level of commitment to a cause, on behalf of which she is willing to override her instinct to maintain the protection of clothing.”

It is more fun to consider nakedness for fun’s sake.  There isn’t much here about private nakedness, but plenty about the more-or-less organized nudist (renamed by many “naturist”) movements, which consider sunshine and fresh air far more healthful than purported propriety.  Those who attend such groups have little interest in shocking anyone, and kept in their own confines, they do not; it is hard to imagine a more harmless enthusiasm.  Nonetheless, it seems threatening to some people.  “The Welsh Harp Incident” occurred near the Welsh Harp Reservoir in outer London in 1930.  A mob of clothed people attacked the nudists who were bathing at the reservoir, shouting, “Not even cannibals would lie about in that condition!  Hottentots would behave with more decency: you are a rotten lot of dogs!”  (One assumes they did not shout in unison.)  Even more fun is nakedness for the sake of a prank, streaking, which Carr-Gomm has traced to 1804 when college student George Crump ran naked through Lexington, Virginia.  He became a Congressman.  Students have continued to follow his lead, but the phenomenon seems to have peaked in the 1970s; after all, hundreds of naked students all running at the same time has far less shock value than one naked person running onto a football field.  There is a nude rugby game held annually in New Zealand, and sometimes a naughty clothed person streaks across the field, only to be tacked and subdued by the players.

You can find out here about the disadvantages of nude air travel (no hot drinks were served by the attendants).  You can see the famous picture of Michael O’Brien who streaked a rugby match and was arrested, with a thoughtful bobby doffing his helmet to place over the streaker at just the right location to allow a photograph that could be printed in the newspapers (in a pose which looks very much like Roman soldiers leading the naked Christ to Golgotha).  Erotic films are barely mentioned, but the influences of The Calendar Girls and The Full Monty are examined, wholesome films that showed that taking off one’s clothes publicly can be heroic and generous.  There is an explanation of the work of Spencer Tunick, who gets huge numbers of volunteers to disrobe so he can take pictures of the mass, often within well-known settings.  John and Yoko’s famous pictures are here, along with one of the performers of “Puppetry of the Penis.”  And here you can learn Lyndon Johnson’s nickname for his penis, which he displayed in a Zen response to a reporter’s question of why he continued to bomb Vietnam.  Thoughtful and funny, here is a history book taking a unveiled look at varieties of a human universal.  Not only that, but the beautifully-produced book seldom goes three pages without an illustration, and the illustrations are consistently of naked people, not always handsome (although plenty are) but always using a lack of clothes to provoke, amuse, or enlighten.  So does Carr-Gomm’s book itself.

Rob Hardy
November 2010

A Brief History of Nakedness
(Reaktion Books, May 2010; ISBN-10: 1861896476)
Available at:  Amazon | Amazon UK

© 2010 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

About the Reviewer:†
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
WebBio: Rob Hardy

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