History of nudity
The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with Western culture and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (November 2010) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
The history of nudity involves social attitudes to nudity in different cultures in history. It is not known when humans began wearing clothes, although there is some archaeological evidence to indicate that clothing may have become commonplace in human society around 72,000 years ago. Nudity (or near-complete nudity) has traditionally been the social norm for both men and women in some hunter-gatherer cultures in warm climates and it is still common among many indigenous peoples. Anthropologists believe that animal skins and vegetation were adapted into coverings as protection from cold, heat and rain, especially as humans migrated to new climates; alternatively, covering may have been invented first for other purposes, such as magic, decoration, cult, or prestige, and later found to be practical as well.
The ancient Egyptians wore the minimum of clothing, and in a number of ancient Mediterranean cultures, the athletic and/or cultist nudity of men and boys was a natural concept. In ancient Rome, nudity could be a public disgrace and might be offensive or distasteful even in traditional settings, though it could be seen at the public baths or in erotic art. In Japan, public nudity was quite normal and commonplace until the Meiji Restoration. In Europe, taboos against nudity began to grow during the Age of Enlightenment and by the Victorian era, public nakedness was considered obscene. In the early years of the 20th century, the modern naturist movement began to develop.
Because animal skins and vegetable materials decompose readily there is no archeological evidence of when and how clothing developed. However, recent studies of human lice suggest that clothing may have become commonplace in human society around 72,000 years ago. If that is correct, it would mean that for around 128,000 years and the majority of anatomically modern human history, humans may not have worn clothes. Some anthropologists believe that Homo habilis and even Homo erectus may have used animal skins for protection placing the origins of clothing at perhaps a million years or more.
Fashions in ancient Egypt did not change much over the millennia. The ancient Egyptians wore the minimum of clothing. Both men and women of the lower classes were commonly bare chested and barefoot, wearing a simple loincloth around their waist. Slaves typically wore nothing. Richer women commonly wore a kalasiris, a dress of loose draped or translucent linen which came to just above or below the breasts. Women entertainers performed naked. Children went without clothing until puberty, at about age 12.
Though the minimum amount of clothing was the norm in ancient Egypt, the custom was viewed as humiliating by some other ancient cultures. For example, the Hebrew Bible records: "So shall the king of the Assyrians lead away the prisoners of Egypt, and the captivity of Ethiopia, young and old, naked and barefoot, with their buttocks uncovered to the shame of Egypt". Similar images occur on many bas-reliefs, also from other empires.
In some ancient Mediterranean cultures, even well past the hunter-gatherer stage, athletic and/or cultist nudity of men and boys – and rarely, of women and girls – was a natural concept. The Minoan civilization prized athleticism, with bull-leaping being a favourite event. Both men and women participated wearing only a loincloth, as toplessness for both sexes was the cultural norm; men wore loincloths, whilst women wore an open-fronted dress.
Ancient Greece had a particular fascination for aesthetics, which was also reflected in clothing or its absence. Sparta had rigorous codes of training (agoge) and physical exercise was conducted in the nude. Athletes competed naked in public sporting events. Spartan women, as well as men, would sometimes be naked in public processions and festivals. This practice was designed to encourage virtue in men while they were away at war and an appreciation of health in the women. Women and goddesses were normally portrayed clothed in sculpture of the Classical period, with the exception of the nude Aphrodite.
In general, however, concepts of either shame or offense, or the social comfort of the individual, seem to have been deterrents of public nudity in the rest of Greece and the ancient world in the east and west, with exceptions in what is now South America, and in Africa and Australia. Polybius asserts that Celts typically fought naked, "The appearance of these naked warriors was a terrifying spectacle, for they were all men of splendid physique and in the prime of life."
In antiquity even before the Classical era, e.g., on Minoan Crete, athletic exercise was an important part of daily life. The Greeks credited several mythological figures with athletic accomplishments, and male gods (especially Apollo and Heracles, patrons of sport) were commonly depicted as athletes. While Greek sculpture often showed males completely nude, a new concept for females, Venus Pudica (or partially nude) appeared, for example, the Greek "Nike of Samothrace".
The civilization of ancient Greece (Hellas), during the Archaic period, had an athletic and cultic aesthetic of nudity which typically included adult and teenage males, but at times also boys, women and girls. The love for beauty had also included the human body, beyond the love for nature, philosophy, and the arts. The Greek word "gymnasium" means 'a place to train naked'. Male athletes competed naked, but most city-states of the time allowed no female participants or even spectators at those events, Sparta being a notable exception.
Nudity in religious ceremonies was also practiced in Greece. The statue of the Moscophoros (the 'calf-bearer'), a remnant of the archaic Acropolis of Athens, depicts a young man carrying a calf on his shoulders, presumably taking the animal to the altar for sacrifice. The Moschophoros is not completely nude: a piece of very fine, almost transparent cloth is carefully draped over his shoulders, upper arms and front thighs, which nevertheless left his genitals purposely exposed. In this case the garment apparently fulfilled a purely ceremonial, priestly function in which modesty was not an issue.
In Greek culture, depictions of erotic nudity were considered normal. The Greeks were conscious of the exceptional nature of their nudity, noting that "generally in countries which are subject to the barbarians, the custom is held to be dishonourable; lovers of youths share the evil repute in which philosophy and naked sports are held, because they are inimical to tyranny;" In both ancient Greece and ancient Rome, public nakedness was also accepted in the context of public bathing. It was also common for a person to be punished by being partially or completely stripped and lashed in public; in some legal systems judicial corporal punishments on the bare buttocks persisted up to or even beyond the feudal age, either only for minors or also for adults, even until today but rarely still in public. In Biblical accounts of the Roman Imperial era, prisoners were often stripped naked, as a form of humiliation.
The origins of nudity in ancient Greek sport are the subject of a legend about the athlete, Orsippus of Megara. There are various myths regarding these origins; in one Orsippus loses his loin cloth during the stadion-race of the 15th Olympic Games in 720 BC which gives him an advantage and he wins. Other athletes then emulate him and the fashion is born.
Nudity in sport spread to the whole of Greece, Greater Greece and even its furthest colonies, and the athletes from all its parts, coming together for the Olympic Games and the other Panhellenic Games, competed naked in almost all disciplines, such as boxing, wrestling, pankration (a free-style mix of boxing and wrestling, serious physical harm was allowed) – in such martial arts equal chances in terms of grip and body protection require a non-restrictive uniform (as presently common) or none. Stadion and various other foot races including relay race, and the pentathlon (made up of wrestling, stadion, long jump, javelin throw, and discus throw). However, even though chariot racers typically wore some clothing while competing, there are depictions of naked chariot racers as well.
It is believed to be rooted in the religious notion that athletic excellence was an "esthetical" offering to the gods (nearly all games fitted in religious festivals), and indeed at many games it was the privilege of the winner to be represented naked as a votive statue offered in a temple, or even to be immortalized as model for a god's statue. Performing naked certainly was also welcome as a measure to prevent foul play, which was punished publicly on the spot by the judges (often religious dignitaries) with a sound lashing. The offender was naked when he was whipped.
Evidence of Greek nudity in sport comes from the numerous surviving depictions of athletes (sculpture, mosaics and vase paintings). Famous athletes were honored by statues erected for their commemoration (see Milo of Croton). A few writers have insisted that the athletic nudity in Greek art is just an artistic convention, finding it unbelievable that anybody would have run naked. This view could be ascribed to late-Victorian prudishness applied anachronistically to ancient times. Other cultures in antiquity did not practice athletic nudity and condemned the Greek practice. Their rejection of naked sports was in turn condemned by the Greeks as a token of tyranny and political repression.
While statues of males often showed complete nudity, female statues often were shown with the concept of Venus Pudica (partially clothed or modest). A prime example is the Nike of Samothrace female statue.
Ancient Roman attitudes toward male nudity differed from those of the Greeks, whose ideal of masculine excellence was expressed by the nude male body in art and in such real-life venues as athletic contests. The toga, by contrast, distinguished the body of the adult male citizen at Rome. The poet Ennius (c. 239–169 BC) declared that "exposing naked bodies among citizens is the beginning of public disgrace (flagitium),[a]" a sentiment echoed by Cicero.
Public nudity might be offensive or distasteful even in traditional settings; Cicero derides Mark Antony as undignified for appearing near-naked as a participant in the Lupercalia festival, even though it was ritually required. Negative connotations of nudity included defeat in war, since captives were stripped and sold into slavery. Slaves for sale were often displayed naked to allow buyers to inspect them for defects, and to symbolize that they lacked the right to control their own bodies. The disapproval of nudity was less a matter of trying to suppress inappropriate sexual desire than of dignifying and marking the citizen's body. Thus the retiarius, a type of gladiator who fought with face and flesh exposed, was thought to be unmanly. The influence of Greek art, however, led to "heroic" nude portrayals of Roman men and gods, a practice that began in the 2nd century BC. When statues of Roman generals nude in the manner of Hellenistic kings first began to be displayed, they were shocking—not simply because they exposed the male figure, but because they evoked concepts of royalty and divinity that were contrary to Republican ideals of citizenship as embodied by the toga. In art produced under Augustus Caesar, the adoption of Hellenistic and Neo-Attic style led to more complex signification of the male body shown nude, partially nude, or costumed in a muscle cuirass. Romans who competed in the Olympic Games presumably followed the Greek custom of nudity, but athletic nudity at Rome has been dated variously, possibly as early as the introduction of Greek-style games in the 2nd century BC but perhaps not regularly until the time of Nero around 60 AD.
At the same time, the phallus was depicted ubiquitously. The phallic amulet known as the fascinum (from which the English word "fascinate" ultimately derives) was supposed to have powers to ward off the evil eye and other malevolent supernatural forces. It appears frequently in the archaeological remains of Pompeii in the form of tintinnabula (wind chimes) and other objects such as lamps. The phallus is also the defining characteristic of the imported Greek god Priapus, whose statue was used as a "scarecrow" in gardens. A penis depicted as erect and very large was laughter-provoking, grotesque, or apotropaic. Roman art regularly features nudity in mythological scenes, and sexually explicit art appeared on ordinary objects such as serving vessels, lamps, and mirrors, as well as among the art collections of wealthy homes.
Respectable Roman women were portrayed clothed. Partial nudity of goddesses in Roman Imperial art, however, can highlight the breasts as dignified but pleasurable images of nurturing, abundance, and peacefulness. The completely nude female body as portrayed in sculpture was thought to embody a universal concept of Venus, whose counterpart Aphrodite is the goddess most often depicted as a nude in Greek art. By the 1st century AD, Roman art showed a broad interest in the female nude engaged in varied activities, including sex.
The erotic art found in Pompeii and Herculaneum may depict women, performing sex acts either naked or often wearing a strophium (strapless bra) that covers the breasts even when otherwise nude. Latin literature describes prostitutes displaying themselves naked at the entrance to their brothel cubicles, or wearing see-through silk garments.
The display of the female body made it vulnerable; Varro thought the Latin word for "sight, gaze", visus, was etymologically related to vis, "force, power". The connection between visus and vis, he said, also implied the potential for violation, just as Actaeon gazing on the naked Diana violated the goddess.[b][c]
One exception to public nudity was the baths, though attitudes toward nude bathing also changed over time. In the 2nd century BC, Cato preferred not to bathe in the presence of his son, and Plutarch implies that for Romans of these earlier times it was considered shameful for mature men to expose their bodies to younger males. Later, however, men and women might even bathe together. Some Hellenized or Romanized Jews resorted to epispasm, a surgical procedure to restore the foreskin "for the sake of decorum".[d][e]
Sumo wrestling, practiced by men in ceremonial dress of loincloth size that exposes the buttocks like a jock strap, in general is considered sacred under Shintō. Public, communal bathing of mixed sexes also has a long history in Japan. Public toplessness was generally considered acceptable as well until the post-WWII US occupation when General Douglas MacArthur passed edicts requiring women to cover their breasts and banning pornography that contained close-up shots of genitalia.
Public nudity was quite normal and commonplace in Japan until the Meiji Restoration. Commodore Matthew Perry's interpreter Rev. S. Well Williams wrote "Modesty, judging from what we see, might be said to be unknown, for the women make no attempt to hide the bosom, and every step shows the leg above the knee; while men generally go with the merest bit of rag, and that not always carefully put on. Naked men and women have both been seen in the streets, and uniformly resort to the same bath house, regardless of all decency. Lewd motions, pictures and talk seem to be the common expression of the viler acts and thoughts of the people, and this to such a degree as to disgust everybody."
After the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government began a campaign to institute a uniform national culture and suppress practices such as public nudity and urination that were unsightly, unhygienic, and disturbing to foreign visitors. Mixed gender bathing was banned. Enforcement of these rules was not consistent and most often occurred in Tokyo and other major cities with a high number of foreign visitors.
Despite the lack of taboos on public nudity, traditional Japanese art seldom depicted nude individuals except for paintings of bathhouses. When the first embassies opened in Western countries in the late 19th century, Japanese dignitaries were shocked and offended at the European predilection for nude statues and busts. However, Japanese students traveling to Europe to study became exposed to Western art and its frequent nudity. In 1894, Kuroda Seikia was the first Japanese artist to publicly exhibit a painting of a nude woman grooming herself. The work caused a public uproar, but gradually nudity became more accepted in Japanese art and by the 1910s, it was commonplace and acceptable as long as pubic hair was not shown. By the 1930s, pubes were accepted as long as they were not overly detailed or the main focus of the picture. However, pornographic art that featured graphic depictions of nudity and sexual acts already existed in Japan for centuries, called Shunga.
In traditional Japanese culture, nudity was typically associated with the lower class of society, i.e. those who performed manual labor and frequently wore little when the weather permitted. The upper class, for comparison, were expected to be modest and fully clothed, with fine clothing in particular considered more erotic than nudity itself. After the Meiji Restoration, upper-class Japanese began adopting Western clothing, which included underwear, something not part of the traditional Japanese wardrobe except for loincloths worn by men.
Underwear was, however, not commonly worn in Japan until after WWII despite the government's attempts to impose Western standards. The disastrous 1923 earthquake in Tokyo was widely used as a pretext to enforce them, as government propaganda claimed that many women perished because they were afraid to jump or climb out of ruined or burning buildings due to their kimonos flying open and exposing their privates. In reality, it had more to do with lack of proper building standards and traditional Japanese homes being constructed with flammable paper and wood; moreover, there was no evidence that women were concerned about accidentally exposing themselves, especially since the majority of Japanese at this time still wore traditional outfits with no undergarments.
After WWII, when Japan was occupied by the Allied military, public nudity was more extensively suppressed and Western clothing, which included boxer shorts, briefs, brassieres, and panties, became normal.
In some hunter-gatherer cultures in warm climates, nudity (or near-complete nudity) has been, until the introduction of Western culture or Islam, or still is, the social norm for both men and women.
Complete nudity among men and complete or near-complete nudity among women is still common for Mursi, Surma, Nuba, Karimojong, Kirdi, Dinka and sometimes Maasai people in Africa, as well as Matses, Yanomami, Suruwaha, Xingu, Matis and Galdu people in South America. Many indigenous peoples in Africa and South America train and perform sport competitions naked Nuba people in South Sudan and xingu tribe in the Amazon region in Brazil, for example, wrestle naked, whereas Dinka, Surma and Mursi in South Sudan and Ethiopia, arrange stick fights. Indian male monks Digambara practice yoga naked (or sky-clad, as they prefer to call it). With the ever-increasing influences of Western and Muslim cultures, these traditions may soon vanish though.
In some African and Melanesian cultures, men going completely naked except for a string tied about the waist are considered properly dressed for hunting and other traditional group activities. In a number of tribes in the South Pacific island of New Guinea, men use hard gourdlike pods as penis sheaths. Yet a man without this "covering" could be considered to be in an embarrassing state of nakedness. Among the Chumash people of southern California, men were usually naked, and women were often topless. Native Americans of the Amazon Basin usually went nude or nearly nude; in many native tribes, the only clothing worn was some device worn by men to clamp the foreskin shut. However, other similar cultures have had different standards. For example, other native North Americans avoided total nudity, and the Native Americans of the mountains and west of South America, such as the Quechuas, kept quite covered. These taboos normally only applied to adults; Native American children often went naked until puberty if the weather permitted (a 10-year-old Pocahontas scandalized the Jamestown settlers by appearing at their camp in the nude).
Among their bad qualities are the following. The women servants, slave-girls, and young girls go about in front of everyone naked, without a stitch of clothing on them. Women go into the sultan's presence naked and without coverings, and his daughters also go about naked.
In 1498, at Trinity Island, Trinidad, Christopher Columbus found the women entirely naked, whereas the men wore a light girdle called guayaco. At the same epoch, on the Para Coast of Brazil, the girls were distinguished from the married women by their absolute nudity. The same absence of costume was observed among the Chaymas of Cumaná, Venezuela, and Du Chaillu noticed the same among the Achiras in Gabon.
In Europe up until the 18th century, non-segregated bathing in rivers and bathhouses was the norm. In addition, toplessness was accepted among all social classes and women from queens to prostitutes commonly wore outfits designed to bare the breasts. During the Enlightenment, taboos against nudity began to grow and by the Victorian era, public nakedness was considered obscene. In addition to beaches being segregated by gender, bathing machines were also used to allow people who had changed into bathing suits to enter directly into the water. During the 1860s, nude swimming became a public offense in Great Britain. In the early 20th century, even exposed male chests were considered unacceptable. During this period, women's bathing suits had to cover at least the thighs and exposure of more than that could lead to arrests for public lewdness. Swimwear began to move away from this extreme degree of modesty in the 1930s after Hollywood star Johnny Weissmuller began going to beaches in just shorts, after which people quickly began copying him. After WWII, the bikini was first invented in France and despite the initial scandal surrounding it, was widespread and normal by the 1960s.
Sport in the modern sense of the word became popular only in the 19th century. Nudity in this context was most common in Germany and the Nordic countries.
In 1924, in the Soviet Union, an informal organization called the "Down with Shame" movement held mass nude marches in an effort to dispel earlier, "bourgeois" morality. During the following decade, Stalin rose to power and quickly suppressed the radical ideas which had circulated in the early years of the Soviet Union. Nudism and pornography were prohibited, and Soviet society would remain rigidly conservative for the rest of the USSR's existence. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a much more liberated social climate prevailed in Russia and naturist clubs and beaches reappeared.
The geographically isolated Scandinavian countries were less affected by Victorian social taboos and continued with their sauna culture. Nude swimming in rivers or lakes was a very popular tradition. In the summer, there would be wooden bathhouses, often of considerable size accommodating numerous swimmers, built partly over the water; hoardings prevented the bathers from being seen from outside. Originally the bathhouses were for men only; today there are usually separate sections for men and women.
For the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912, the official poster was created by a distinguished artist. It depicted several naked male athletes (their genitals obscured) and was for that reason considered too daring for distribution in certain countries. Posters for the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, the 1924 Olympics in Paris, and the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki also featured nude male figures, evoking the classical origins of the games. The poster for the 1948 London Olympics featured the Discobolus, a nude sculpture of a discus thrower.
In the early years of the 20th century, a nudist movement began to develop in Germany which was connected to a renewed interest in classical Greek ideas of the human body. So-called Freikörperkultur (FKK) clubs sprung up during this period and started moving the German public away from much of the Victorian modesty codes they had inherited. During the 1930s, the Nazi leadership either banned naturist organizations or placed them under the control of the party, and opinion on them seems to have been divided. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels considered nudity decadent while Heinrich Himmler and the SS endorsed it.
Male nudity in the US and other Western countries was not a taboo for much of the 20th century. Social attitudes maintained that it was healthy and normal for men and boys to be nude around each other and schools, gymnasia, and other such organizations typically required nude male swimming in part for sanitary reasons due to the use of wool swimsuits. Movies, advertisements, and other media frequently showed nude male bathing or swimming. There was less tolerance for female nudity and the same schools and gyms that insisted on wool swimwear being unsanitary for males did not make an exception when women were concerned. Nonetheless, some schools did allow girls to swim nude if they wished. To cite one example, Detroit public schools began allowing nude female swimming in 1947, but ended it after a few weeks following protests from parents. Other schools continued allowing it, but it was never a universally accepted practice like nude male swimming.
During the 1960s, there was a growing body of opinion that boys should not be required to swim nude if they didn't want to, partially from higher postwar living standards that created more expectations of privacy and also from complaints that the supposed unsanitary nature of wool swimwear did not seem to pose a problem with girls. By the 1970s, most schools and gyms in the US had become gender-integrated which put an end to nude swimming.
After WWII, communist East Germany became famous for its nude beaches and widespread FKK culture, a rare freedom allowed in a regimented society. By comparison, naturism was not as popular in West Germany, one reason being that the churches had more influence than the secularized DDR. Following the reunification of Germany in 1990, FKK declined in popularity due to an influx of more prudish West Germans to the East as well as increased immigration of Turks and other socially conservative Muslims.
In 1957, Arkansas passed a law to make it illegal to "advocate, demonstrate, or promote nudism." The law applies to both public spaces and private property.
During the 1960s-70s, feminist groups in France and Italy lobbied for and obtained the legalization of topless beaches despite opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. Spain would eventually permit toplessness on its beaches, but only after the death of ultra-conservative Catholic dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. While public nudity is not a major taboo in continental Europe, Britain and the United States tend to view it less favorably, and naturist clubs are not as family-oriented as in Germany and elsewhere, with nude beaches being often seen as meetup locations for homosexual men cruising for sex. Nowadays, most European countries permit toplessless on normal beaches with full nudity allowed only on designated nude beaches. Despite this, it is quite normal in many parts of Europe to change clothing publicly even if the person becomes fully naked in the process, as this is taken to not count as public nudity.
An occasional—often illegal—naked sideshow is when a member of the public uses a sports venue to perform as a streaker. Streaking became more popular in the 1970s. It was not until the 1990s (and after) that nudity became expected at major public events, such as Bay to Breakers and the World Naked Bike Ride. Due to the desexualized and sex-negative approach by some contemporary nudist groups, some observers have suggested that 21st-century nudism has experienced a tinge of prudification.
In many cultures in history, there were few taboos on children being publicly naked although the point at where it becomes unacceptable has varied between the toddler stage and up until puberty is attained around the ages of 11-12 (see the above example of Pocahontas). In some Western countries since the late 20th century, public attitudes have come to consider any child nudity past the infant stage unacceptable. This has even extended to the idea of covering prepubescent girls' chests at all times in spite of the absence of breasts. As a consequence, in the US and Britain, nude babies and children have largely disappeared from advertisements and other forms of media even though they were commonplace prior to the 1970s. In one of the more notable advertising examples, the famous Coppertone Logo, which depicted a small girl having her swimsuit pulled down by a dog to expose her tan lines, was changed during the 1990s–2000s to reveal far less skin.
- Christian naturism
- American Gymnosophical Association
- Depictions of nudity
- History of the Rechabites
- List of social nudity places
- Nudity and sexuality
- Nudity in combat
- Nudity in sport
- Public nudity
- Timeline of non-sexual social nudity
Notes and references
- Originally, flagitium meant a public shaming, and later more generally a disgrace
- Varro, De lingua latina 6.8, citing a fragment from the Latin tragedian Accius on Actaeon that plays with the verb video, videre, visum, "see," and its presumed connection to vis (ablative vi, "by force") and violare, "to violate": "He who saw what should not be seen violated that with his eyes" (Cum illud oculis violavit is, qui invidit invidendum)
- Ancient etymology was not a matter of scientific linguistics, but of associative interpretation based on similarity of sound and implications of theology and philosophy
- Causa decoris: Celsus, De medicina 7.25.1A, 
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