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Clothing, as Emma Tarlo insists, matters.[1] How we dress, what we have been permitted as dress, for whom we dress have all been hugely important political as well as social and economic questions, as sumptuary laws demonstrate. But if clothing is important historically then so, too, I want to suggest is its absence. Lack of clothing has many meanings and is often freighted with significance.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, unclothedness has special significance rooted in the concept of original sin. In other religions, too, revealing the naked body is highly charged, suggesting the ways in which sexuality and religion bump up against one another across cultures. It is perhaps also why nakedness has often been deployed as resistance. In seventeenth-century England, Ranter and Quaker sects protested their marginalization through nudity -- which they argued was a state of grace. In the early twentieth century, Canadian Doukhobors (an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church, about 7500 of whom migrated to Canada en masse in 1899) paraded nude on a number of occasions protesting what they saw as discrimination by the government.[2]  There are many more such examples across the world and in the British Empire specifically, suggesting that revealing the naked body has long been a powerful gesture.

Yet what exactly is a naked body?  Is it naked only when particular areas or organs are visible?  Is it naked if adorned with body markings such as piercings or tattoos?  Does ornamentation, whether of the neck, the penis, or the hair, mitigate nakedness?  The determination of nakedness is a slippery and contingent business, different (and contested) at particular moments and places. Read modern legal briefs about the regulation of strip clubs and the point becomes obvious. With nipple pasties firmly glued on, the dancers are mostly legal; absent these accessories they are naked. If a detail as minimal as this can pay the salaries of lawyers and tie up busy court time, it seems reasonable to insist on the political and economic as well as cultural importance of nakedness.

In the wake of Kenneth Clark’s massively influential 1956 book The Nude: A Study In Ideal Form, nudity and nakedness have frequently been distinguished. Nudity, as Clark articulated an already-understood convention, was acceptable because it eschewed sensuality and celebrated the pure beauty of the human form. Think breast-feeding Virgin Mary canvases and sculptures. Nakedness, by contrast, was the expression either of loss or absence (the unhinged King Lear railing at his fate) or of corrupt sexuality. Art schools had to exercise care in the use of life models for fear of crossing the line from beauty to wantonness. One way they did so, flawlessly captured in Pat Barker’s 2007 novel Life Class, was by forbidding women students in live modelling classes. The issue was the subject of a parliamentary debate in 1860 when a motion to withdraw monies from state-funded schools of art employing female models was squarely defeated in the House of Commons.

Clark’s distinction has resonances, too, when we consider the naked colonial body. The trope of colonial nakedness is a remarkably tenacious cliché, still used to advertise exotic holiday locations, or to indicate a state of savagery or primitiveness. Until very recently school textbooks, missionary newsletters, and even scientific texts in Britain, and indeed in the former Dominions, routinely depicted ‘the native’ as definitively naked, lacking (and thus naked not nude) manners, morals, and money.  Thus when Thomas Huxley requested the Colonial Secretary to have colonial governors furnish him with photographs of ‘Races of men’ living in the British Empire in a ‘condition of absolute nudity’ for ethnological study, their ‘natural’ state of unclothedness mean that his request could cause no offence.[3] In an era of high colonialism the difference between nudity and nakedness thus had distinct racial as well as sexual resonances, dividing the civilized from the savage, and reminding us that the category of race was ever crucial in British history. Considering nakedness as a historical construct seems to me a great way to do that.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Philippa Levine is the Mary Helen Thompson Centennial Professor in the Humanities and co-director of the Program in British Studies at UT Austin.  She is the author of many articles and several books, including Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (2003) and The British Empire, Sunrise to Sunset (2007, 2nd Revised Edition 2013).


[1] Emma Tarlo, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)

[2] John McLaren, 'The Despicable Crime of Nudity,' Journal of the West 38, no. 3 (1999): 27-33.

[3] Thomas Huxley to Lord Granville, 12 August 1869, TNA CO854/10/5.

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