Naked or Covered. A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World.


‘The question of which parts of the human body are to be covered and which may be left bare is as much of a battlefield today as it has ever been. Mineke Schipper provides a fascinating and wide-ranging compendium of fact and fiction about the covering of the body through the ages.'

J.M. Coetzee


When our first ancestors began to walk on two legs instead of four, they gained a new perspective on each other's physicality. As degrees of embarrassment or social awkwardness emerged, complicated dress codes came into being. The first instance of covering up consisted of a thread wound around the foreskin to tuck the penis out of sight under a strap worn round the hips; a case of modesty fuelled by fears of a spontaneous erection. Little by little, people began to decorate themselves with tattoos, feathers, paint, jewellery and headdresses. As humans migrated to cooler climes, animal skins were adapted for shoes and clothing.


Throughout history, cultures and religions developed specific codes to control unruly nakedness. In Imperial Japan an uncovered female neck was considered so alluring as to be scandalous; in Victorian England a heel had to be invisible; but in the Middle East women's feet were rather less problematic than women's hair.


Naked arms, legs or breasts are not in the least surprising to those who are used to encountering them in daily life, but in the eyes of those who walk around completely covered a glimpse of naked flesh can be shocking. The first European explorers were appalled to discover ‘savage’ humans perfectly at ease with their nakedness, but the tribal people of Africa or the Americas were equally bemused by the intruders’ insistence on covering up.


There have been eras in which European men were every bit as coquettish and ostentatious in their choice of dress as women, but since the French Revolution there has tended to be a rigid divide between notions of beauty and manliness. Now, in times of globalisation, we are confronted by a variety of perspectives on 'normal’ dress. Advertisers routinely fall back on the female nude to sell anything from cars to scent, a choice of garment can contain a powerful political message, there are protests against nakedness and nakedness is used as protest, while contemporary interpretations of religious or cultural edicts are met with bafflement. With an unerring eye for detail, and an engaging mixture of anecdote and historical interpretation our fascinating and contradictory attitudes to bodily exposure and concealment are dissected through time and across cultures.


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Mineke Schipper © 2018