History of nudity  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

It is not known when humans began wearing clothes. Anthropologists logically presume that humans originally lived naked, without clothing, as their natural state. They postulate the adaptation of animal skins and vegetation into coverings to protect the wearer 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.


Paleolithic History

Because animal skins and vegetable materials decompose readily there is no direct 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. 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. It is not clear at what point modesty with respect to nudity became a part of human customs.

The Greeks

In antiquity even before the Classical era, e.g. on Minoan Crete, athletic exercise played an important part in daily life. In fact, the Greeks credited several mythological figures with athletic accomplishments, and male gods (especially Apollo and Herakles, patrons of sport) were commonly depicted as athletes.

Nudity in sport however was not common. It was first introduced in the city-state of Sparta, during the late archaic period. The custom of exercising naked was closely associated with pedagogic pederasty and with the practice of anointing the body with olive oil to accentuate its beauty and erotic appeal.

In other various Ancient cultures nudity was held to be humiliating, as attested for Pharaonic Egypt and the Hebrews by the Old testament: "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, such as Minoan, athletic and/or cultist nudity of men and boys –and rarely, of women and girls– was a natural concept.

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 included also the human body, beyond the love for nature, philosophy, the arts etc. The Greek word gymnasium means "a place to train naked". Male athletes competed nude, but most city-states of the time allowed no female participants or even spectators at those events, Sparta being a notable exception.

In Greek culture, depictions of erotic nudity were considered normal, including sexual acts and pederastic practices. 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; loves 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 till today but rarely still in public. In Biblical accounts of the Roman Imperial era, prisoners were often stripped naked, as a form of humiliation.

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 allowed) -in such martial arts equal chances in terms of grip and body protection require a non-restrictive uniform, as presently common, or the bare-, 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, they did not perform in the nude during chariot races.

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 in the nude 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, also endured in the bare.

Evidence of Greek nudity in sport comes from the numerous surviving depictions of athletes (sculpture, mosaics and vase paintings). Famous athletes were honored by a statue 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.

In Hellenistic times, Greek-speaking Jews would sometimes take part in athletic exercises. They were then exposed to ridicule because they were circumcised - a national and religious custom which was unknown in the Greek tradition. In fact the Greek athletes, even though naked, seem to have made a point of avoiding exposure of their glans, for example by infibulation, or wearing of a kynodesme.

Roman empire

The Romans, although they took over much of the Greek culture, had a somewhat different appreciation of nakedness. To appear nude in public was considered inappropriate except in certain places and contexts: the public baths (originally open to both sexes) and even public latrines were as popular meeting places for all as the forum.

Athletic exercises by free citizens (no longer required to serve as soldiers since Marius' army reform) were partly replaced by gladiatorial games performed in amphitheatres. The gladiators were mainly recruited among slaves, war captives and death row convicts – the very lowest, who had no choice – but occasionally a free man chose this fast lane to fame and riches. When fighting in the arena, against one another or against wild beasts, they would be armed with swords, shields etc., but would otherwise be partly or totally naked (see Gladiator for particulars).

In Roman-occupied Jerusalem, Jews using the gymnasium would wear prosthetic foreskins made from sheep gut in order to avoid being ridiculed for being circumcised.

Gladiatorial contests were one of many features, especially religious, that Rome inherited from its Etruscan neighbours. This ancient, alien (not Indo-European, possibly originating from Asia Minor) culture even depicts warriors fighting completely naked.

Western Christianity

When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, gladiatorial games were soon abandoned, and the Christian view of post pubescent nudity as a sin took root. This view spread with the spread of Christianity, until it became normative.

However, until the beginning of the 8th century, Christians in Western Europe were baptised naked, emerging from the water like Adam and Eve before the fall. "The disappearance of baptism by immersion in the Carolingian era gave nudity a sexual connotation that it has previously lacked for Christians" (Rouche 1987 p. 455). About the same time it became common to represent Christ on the Cross wearing a long tunic, the colobium.

In the 6th century, Saint Benedict of Nursia advised the monks in his Rule to sleep fully dressed in the dormitory.

European men wore long tunics until the 15th century, when codpieces, tights and tight trousers gradually came into use; these all covered the male genitals but at the same time drew attention to them.


Sumo wrestling, practiced by men in ceremonial dress of loin cloth-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.

Recent history

During the Victorian era, public nakedness was considered obscene. In addition to beaches being segregated by gender, bathing machines were also used to conceal the naked body. In the early 20th century, exposure of male nipples was considered indecent at some beaches. This is in contrast to in the Middle Ages, when the bathing suits worn by men, while covering the genitals, often nonetheless made them quite obvious.

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, where Body culture was very much revered (and some say, copied) by Nazi ideologues.

In the Nordic countries, 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 a classical nude sculpture of a discus thrower.

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 wasn't until the 1990s (and after) that nudity became expected at major public events, such as Bay to Breakers and World Naked Bike Ride.

Biblical narrative – Adam and Eve

The biblical story of Adam and Eve describes how God created the first man and woman, who were both naked, and felt no shame. (The Bible says that man and woman was created "in God's image".) It goes on to describe that after they ate the fruit of "the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil", against God's commandment, they "saw" that they were naked, and were ashamed for the first time. To cover their "shame" they made aprons of fig leaves. (The story has been used to teach many moral lessons. For example, some people regard nudity itself to be the sin, using the story to explain the taboo against nudity, in private or in public.)

See also

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