What is the difference between nudity and nakedness? The first word derives from Norman French; the second from Anglo-Saxon German. In English we use both terms interchangeably whereas they could be said to have two distinct meanings as follows:
‘if you are nude you are unclothed and knowingly observed, while nakedness refers to the ‘innocent state of simply being uncovered. Nudity happens in art, nakedness happen in your bathroom. Nakedness represents the raw, nudity the ideal.’
So begins ‘A Brief History of Nakedness’ by Philip Carr-Gomm, an intriguing study of both forms of unclothedness from three main perspectives – Religion, Protest and Popular Culture.
Its author tells us that he first discovered the joys of nakedness when he was 49 at one of Britain’s oldest naturist resorts and that this was the book’s inspiration. As a result he set out on a voyage of discovery to find out why taking off one’s clothes arouses such passion. He wandered around Cap d’Agde – the ‘Naked City’ in the South of France, danced naked with a witch’s coven, made a pilgrimage to the Jain temples in India and experienced what its like to be a life model. His verdict: ‘strangely fascinating.’
This is not an academic work although its clear the book has been rigorously researched and comes complete with detailed references. Carr-Gomm wears his erudition lightly and expertly interweaves his own personal experiences with his extensive research in an entertaining and readable narrative that is enhanced by numerous well-chosen illustrations and photos confirming that public nudity is well and truly out of the closet.
Back in the day, nudity was confined in naturist resorts. For most people, it was a world glimpsed only in well-thumbed copies of ‘Health & Efficiency’ magazine. Little did we know then that ‘streaking’ – a favourite of the tabloids in the 60s and 70s – was just a precursor of what Carr-Gomm calls The End of Shame.
Thousands now readily volunteer to appear in Spencer Tunick’s mass nude photographs. There are few sports that are not played in the nude somewhere in the world on a regular basis. Nudity on stage and screen is now acceptable and rarely censored. Nude fund-raising calendars are ubiquitous.The Internet and social media provide endless new opportunities for exposing oneself and observing others.
Yet as Carr-Gomm points out we may have gained greater sexual freedom and developed a more liberal attitude towards nakedness but ‘if you take off your clothes in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can be fined, deported or thrown into jail.’
As individuals and societies, we remain conflicted in our attitudes towards being naked or nude. Nakedness can make us feel vulnerable or powerful depending upon the context.
Does it surprise you to learn that men have a greater urge than women to get naked and be seen naked? Carr-Gomm believes this may simply be a male ‘display instinct’ built into our make-up as social animals. Nakedness. he believes, also gives us an ‘awareness of ourselves as embodied creatures [which] lies at the heart of our sense of self’.
Most of the information in this book was new to me and, having sketched out the broad canvas of Carr-Gomm’s investigation, it is worth highlighting some of the people, events, ideas and curiosities that he has uncovered.
[Left: From the ‘Going Skyclad’ page of Wicca site The Pythorium]
The first section on religious attitudes towards nakedness begins with modern paganism, principally Wicca and Druidism. This is home territory for Carr-Gomm who is the Head of Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.
Wicca is one of the fastest growing religions in the West with 400,000 adherents in the US, 100,000 in the UK. This was ‘invented’ in modern times by Gerald Gardner, who master-minded this alternative religion.
Much of the history of witchcraft pre-Wicca is,it seems, the product of over-heated imaginations. There was no such thing as a witch religion and virtually no records of naked rituals. Certainly there were pre-Christian naked rites to do with fertility, encouraging rain and celebrating harvests.
The images of naked witch rites can be traced back to the 15thC when these fantastical fantasies provided ‘one of the few ways in which German artists of that age were permitted to depict the female nude.’
The connection between Wicca and Druidism as two dominant forms of modern paganism began in a naturist camp when Gardner met Ross Nichols, a leading figure in the revival of interest in Druidism. In both cases, being ‘skyclad’, in pagan jargon was the exception rather than the rule.
In India, there was an ancient tradition of naked asceticism out of which Jainism emerged, a religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. Jainist monks would reject clothing to avoid killing organisms when washing them. These days there are an estimated five million adherents, mainly in India and less than 200 naked Jains.
By comparison there are thousands of naked Hindu sadhus although there numbers are also diminishing as Indian attitudes become Westernised. Many city councils in India now forbid public nudity.
Depictions of the naked Christ have always formed part of Christian iconography although in modern times certain of these have proved controversial including Canadian artist Cosimo Cavallaro’s 2007 art piece, entitled ‘My Sweet Lord’, which was made out of chocolate.
Spencer Tunick’s mass nude photo for Greenpeace highlighting their climate change campaign and the issue of the effect of global warming on glaciers (2007). Source: Greenpeace Switzerland
Nakedness as protest has a long history dating back at least to Lady Godiva, the memory of whom has been revived in Coventry by the legendary Pru Poretta.
Much of this section of the book confirms that naked protest is alive and well in many different forms and countries, except for the Middle East where it is non-existent.
We read or see accounts or images of naked women protesting Indian Army rape, breast-feeding protests in Prague and Andalucia, Tibetan students in Delhi, life models in Paris, peasant farmers in Mexico – all using nakedness to gain attention for their cause.
Nakedness is a common protest tactic for NGOs. One anti-war banner held by naked protestors reads ‘Breasts Not Bombs’. Animal rights group PETA regularly use nakedness in their campaign ads and stage the ‘Running of the Nudes’ in Pamplona to protest the more famous bull-running ceremony.
The TreeSprit campaign, raises awareness of trees using pictures of naked people entwined in branches. The world Naked Bike Ride protests ‘indecent exposure to cars and oil dependency’.
Public nudity is permitted in Barcelona but this is an exception. Carr-Gomm writes that: ‘In most of Europe, the naked body is not in itself considered indecent in law and yet appearing naked in public is subject to sanctions.’
In recent years in Britain, two naked protestors have regularly hit the mass media: Stephen Gough, the ‘Naked Rambler’ and Vincent Bethell who has staged naked protests in Piccadilly Circus and other prominent London tourist sites under the banner ‘Freedom to Be Yourself’.
The way UK legislation stands at the moment, arrests for public nudity can be made under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 but it it is difficult to prosecute as the police have to prove intent to offend. The Public Order Act 1968 is a legal alternative which covers disorderly, threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour.
Carr-Gomm concludes: ‘the campaign for freedom to be naked in public is perhaps the most doomed to failure.’
The Polish Women’s Party campaign poster (2007)
The book’s final section about nakedness in Popular Culture covers a wide field. It is interesting the number of politicians in different parts of the world who have used nude posters as par of their campaigning.
Streaking, it seems, started with nude runs on the campuses of US universities in the 1960s – a practice which actually has its roots in the 19th century. When there was a mass nude run at the University of Notre Dame in 1972, the news hits the mainstream. At its peak, in 1974, a similar event at the University of Georgia attracted 1,543 entrants.
In Britain who can forget the arrest of Michael O’Brien at Twickenham, memorably photographed with a policeman holding his helmet over O’Brien’s privates. This triggered a worldwide rash of nude streaking at sports events which O’Brien says he feels guilty about.
Carr-Gomm covers the theatrical shocks of ‘Hair’ and ‘Oh Calcutta’, the iconic and controversial nude album covers for John and Yoko and Blind Faith, stage exhibitionism by the usual rock star suspects (hello Iggy!) and, post 9-11, Janet Jackson’s nipple exposure, ‘The Full Monty’, the rise of the Naked Chef, nude calendars and the Puppetry of the Penis.
By way of conclusion, its interesting to ponder on the rise and fall of naturism. Such groups and clubs first emerged in France and Germany in 1903 but the first in Britain – ‘The Sunshine League’ – was established in 1924. These were part of a wider reform movement A post-war revival of interest came in the 1950s when naturism has its heyday. But with the 1960s came package holidays which exposed many to beach nudity. Nakedness and sexual permissiveness moved into the mainstream and the interest in naturism declined.
A valuable social document, Carr-Gomm’s thought-provoking book shines light on a neglected aspect of our human history. It encourages us to be more at peace with our naked selves.
‘A Brief History of Nakedness’ by Philip Carr-Gomm is published by Reaktion Books. A paperback version is out this month.