A Brief History of Nakedness

Adrian Bingham undresses an account of nakedness and finds it entertaining but rather short on analysis

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Reviewed by: Adrian Bingham
Author: Philip Carr-Gomm
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Price (RRP): £19.95

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Nakedness has had many different meanings, and has evoked a multitude of powerful emotions over the course of human history. Philip Carr-Gomm’s ambitious, often entertaining, but ultimately rather frustrating new book attempts to make sense of the ideas and emotions stimulated by the unclothed human body. Undressing, the author suggests, is motivated by at least six different desires: the functional, the sensual, the erotic, the ascetic, the mystic, and the attention seeking. 

This account is concerned primarily with the final three of these, and provides an impressive array of examples from around the world, complemented by over a hundred black-and-white illustrations that add flesh – and plenty of it – to the proceedings. In the end, though, Carr-Gomm struggles to develop a convincing analysis to explain all of this nakedness: the journey may be enjoyable but the confusions and contradictions remain unravelled.

The book’s opening two chapters, which discuss religious approaches to nakedness, are by far the weakest. The author is unable to restrain his penchant for magic and mysticism – he has previously published several books on druids – and the reader’s patience is tested with a dense and often speculative narrative focusing on obscure practices and sects. It is “certainly possible”, Carr-Gomm observes at one point, with a hint of desperation, that witches worshipped naked in early modern Italy.

Far more interesting are the subsequent chapters on nakedness in politics. We are shown how protesters have removed their clothes to draw attention to their movements, how politicians have stripped to boost their campaigns, and how naturists have fought for the right to appear naked in public. Unfortunately there is no obvious logic to the organisation of this material, and examples are piled up with insufficient explanation; there is, in particular, far too little on why the media continue to be attracted to naked flesh.

There are also some questionable generalisations, such as the offhand and unsupported claim that while men tend to be drawn to the world of the ‘spirit’ and the cerebral, women are more concerned with the practical. The final two chapters explore nakedness in popular culture, ranging from the rise of the streaker at sporting events to the increasing amount of nudity in film, music and theatre. These are well-researched, but the historical narrative, which identifies 1968 as the key turning point, is rather simplistic.

At two points in this book, Carr-Gomm waxes lyrical about his own experiences of removing his clothes. He found that by going naked, he gained access to a “deeper sense of self”. This enthusiasm for nakedness pervades the text and is often rather engaging. It cannot disguise, however, the many gaps in the analysis: this is a book that raises more questions than it answers.

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Dr Adrian Bingham is author of Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-war Britain (OUP, 2004)