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A Brief History of Nakedness

41lu-TDPibLAuthor: Philip Carr-Gomm
Publisher: Reaktion Books (UK & USA)
Japanese edition: Kawade Shobo Shinsha
Polish edition: Bellona
Korean edition: Hakgojae
Publication date: Hardback 30 April 2010
Paperback 1 December 2012
ISBN: 978-1861896476
Also available as an e-book

See the iWonder feature curated for the BBC

See Shepherd review

Nudity in Religion, Politics and Popular Culture

The naked human body evokes powerful and often contradictory feelings and ideas: it can thrill or revolt us; it can signal innocence or sexual availability, honesty or madness, oneness with nature or separation from society. Advertisers and the media are aware of the complex and ambivalent associations that most of us have towards the subject, and use images of bare skin or simply the word ‘naked’ to compete for our attention, while mystics have used nudity to get closer to God, and political protesters have discovered that simply baring all represents one of the most effective ways to gain publicity for their cause.
A Brief History of Nakedness traces humanity’s preoccupation with nudity in three distinct areas of human endeavour: religion, politics and popular culture. Rather than studying the history of the nude in art or photography, or detailing the ways in which the naked body has been denigrated or denied, this book explores new territory: revealing the ways in which religious teachers, politicians, protesters and cultural icons have used nudity to enlighten or empower themselves, or simply to entertain us.
From the naked sages of India and St.Francis of Assisi to modern-day witches and Christian nudists, from Lady Godiva to Lady Gaga, via ‘The Full Monty’ and ‘The Calendar Girls’, A Brief History of Nakedness surveys the touching, sometimes tragic and often bizarre story of our relationship to our naked bodies.

By exploring the way in which nakedness has been used literally and metaphorically in the worlds of religion, politics and popular culture, A Brief History of Nakedness offers unique insights into this most intimate of subjects. 288pp 143 illustrations.

Sleazy or sublime? Nude people streaking across football pitches, thousands of naked bodies on bridges and in parks shivering at dawn for the privilege of being in a Spencer Tunick photo, middle-aged unemployed men in Sheffield taking their ‘kit’ off in a local theatre. What on earth is going on? Is our preoccupation with naked flesh frivolous and just driven by sexual desire, or are other forces at work?
Philip Carr-Gomm believes that the way we get naked and the way we perceive nudity can provide us with key insights into the nature of the human condition. In his surprising new book, A Brief History of Nakedness, Carr-Gomm tackles head on a subject hardly ever discussed: the way some religions use nudity to get closer to God.
Before we can recover our composure he’s on to the next topic: how nakedness has become a powerful weapon in the hands of the political protestor, and how politicians enjoy taking their clothes off to prove they have nothing to hide. Then on to more familiar ground: how popular culture has embraced nakedness. He explores the phenomenon of streaking, the history of nudism, the story of nakedness in the worlds of the theatre and cinema, pop and opera, ballet and contemporary dance. It turns out that the nude is everywhere and now you can do almost anything naked somewhere in the world: from sky diving and skiing in Europe, to dining out in New York or Edinburgh.
A Brief History of Nakedness is an erudite and witty tour around the world and across the centuries, ranging from the seedy to the spiritual, and from the ancient history of India to the world of the modern pop diva. All the while the author’s passion for a subject that fascinates him as a psychologist shines through. Reaktion Books Press Release

Rated Four Stars and one of the four ‘Best Books of the Week’ by critics in The Daily Telegraph 2 June 2010

One of the four ‘Summer Reading Suggestions’ of Alasdair Buchan in The Diplomat Magazine

On Newstalk Ireland’s Recommended Books for June 2010

New Yorker Interview

Listen here to a short interview with Philip about the book.

Listen here to a discussion about the book with Laurie Taylor and sociologist Angela McRobbie on ‘Thinking Allowed’ BBC Radio 4

From the Introduction:

Why does nudity upset some people so much? Why does it excite others to such a degree? Why do some religious people condemn nudity while others recommend it? Does protesting in the nude achieve anything worthwhile? How can the Penis Puppeteers get away with displaying and manipulating their genitals on stage in the same country that fined CBS $550,000 for broadcasting an image of Janet Jackson’s breast, covered with a nipple-shield, for less than a second? If a policeman was confronted by a naked woman painted so that she appeared clothed, and a clothed woman wearing a nude suit, which would he caution or arrest? And why is the Naked Chef never naked?
These questions, and dozens like them, arise because even though nakedness simply represents our natural embodied state, in the course of human evolution it has come to act as a catalyst for a host of contradictory thoughts, feelings and activities, in a way that has created a story which is at times tragic, at times touching, and often bizarre.
A cynic might think that this colourful history offers yet one more example of humanity’s narcissism. What could be more absurd than a species that is so self-obsessed that it is endlessly fascinated by exposing and gazing upon its own form? A kinder view might see our interest as the clearest example of that attribute that distinguishes us from other animals: self-consciousness.
An incident from the legendary history of one of the world’s oldest religions – Jainism – illustrates this alternative view. One day, the Emperor Bharat, son of the founder of the religion, after taking his bath, began to observe his body in a mirror, and in doing so gained enlightenment.
Awareness of ourselves as embodied creatures lies at the heart of our sense of self, which explains why so much money and effort is spent on trying to change and cover our bodies, since the way we perceive them and our appearance radically affects our experience of ourselves and of the world.


‘Ambitious and often entertaining’ BBC History Magazine

‘A scholarly romp…wonderful illustrations’ The Sunday Times

‘This book is as fun as history gets.’ The Dispatch

‘An accessible and often amusing examination of nudity’s associations with authority, authenticity and honesty’ The Financial Times

‘Richly illustrated…thought-provoking. A book stuffed with tales about those who throw their knickers to the wind. ‘ The Telegraph

”A polymath survey of attitudes to the naked body across thousands of years…takes us on a colourful caravan across the centuries of Asiatic and European history’ Reviews in History

‘An unabashed celebration of the naked human form…about the excitement – and humour – of surrendering the mystery of clothes’ London Evening Standard

‘Philip Carr-Gomm’s lushly illustrated book takes a long and enthusiastic look at the politics and culture of nakedness. Nudism attracts eccentrics, and their stories, he feels, deserve to be told . . . thought-provoking’ The Economist

‘Lucid, economical and witty – at once informed and conversational… underpinned by a great deal of research and a wealth of historical detail.’ Dr Ruth Barcan, author of Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy

‘Not only the best book on its subject, but a marvellous read: racy, compassionate, candid and perceptive.’ Ronald Hutton, Professor of History, University of Bristol

‘Body as temple, body as prison; source of pride, source of shame; object of beauty, object of disgust – in this lucid and wide-ranging book Phillip Carr-Gomm examines that most hidden-in-plain-view of subjects: the naked human form. In doing so, he strips bare the paradoxes of humanity’s attitude toward their own naked figures. Using a snappy blend of history and imagery, Carr-Gomm invites readers to join him in making thrilling, confusing, funny, and beautiful realizations about that simultaneously mysterious and obvious state of unclothedness. From the rituals of witchcraft to the human art installations of Spencer Tunick to the non-nakedness of the Naked Chef, Carr-Gomm offers the revelation that far from being merely a basic physical state, human nakedness – sacred, obscene – holds the key to understanding politics, culture, and our very nature as human beings.’ Kathleen Rooney, author of Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object

‘I absolutely love A Brief History of Nakedness and give it my highest rating – two nipples up!  Besides being an absolutely fascinating read, it contains the most fun, intriguing, and diverse collection of nude photographs anywhere. A must for anyone interested in art, political activism, and cultural studies.  This “brief” history must have taken forever to research.  It makes me want to rip off my clothes for a good cause immediately.’ Annie Sprinkle, Ph.D. – Artist/Sexologist

‘Nakedness cloaks contradictions: while revealing human nature it is often deemed unnatural, and while deemed antisocial it is the bond of intense social groups. It can express celebration and protest, cause joy and shame. It can be taboo or obligatory. Philip Carr-Gomm’s A Brief History of Nakedness admirably uncovers religious, political and popular performances of and reactions to nudity in a remarkable array of cultures. Everything from ancient religious devotional practices to recent streaking controversies is discussed in an expert and delightful manner.’ Dr.Graham Harvey, Reader in Religious Studies, The Open University, UK

The Power of Naked

Here are the results of my survey of modern naked behaviour. This is not a scientific poll – it is a sounding.
Half of us sleep naked, to the despair of pajama manufacturers. Half of us walk naked around our own houses. Of those who have their own private swimming pools, 90 per cent swim in them naked.  Half the British population has stripped for a charity calendar.  Perhaps.
Men and women are equally interested in nakedness – being naked and seeing other people naked. Half those studying bare breasts in The Sun every day are female.
There are some national differences. But there is still plenty of nudity even in chilly Britain where we have naked bike rides (sounds uncomfortable), nude days at theme parks, lots of nude beaches, and mediatised nudity on a heroic scale.  Nude is no longer especially rude although exposure does not limit the potential for embarrassment.
Nudity is a subject of endless fascination for everybody – moral philosophers, psychologists, artists, editors – but it is a complicated subject. There is a place where nudity segues to perversity and becomes in itself a symptom of madness. What are we to make of all this flesh?
It is timely that Philip Carr-Gomm,  a writer in Lewes, Sussex who specialises normally in the mystical and Druidic, should have authored A Brief History of Nakedness (Reaktion Books, London, 2010).
In a lavishly illustrated tour of the horizon, from religious and artistic confrontations with nakedness, to the quotidian nudity of today, Carr-Gomm advances the thesis that there has recently been a fundamental shift in attitudes towards nudity. He posits this began in the sixties and heralded a shifting of the idea of nakedness from something perverted to something socially responsible and even heroic.  Even before the body scanners are rolled out to strip us all naked at the airport, this is the age of bare, he proposes.
Perhaps. The sixties were without doubt a social-sexual milestone but a point of departure? I am a little more sceptical. I’d propose that the Internet has had more to do with demystifying the human body –  of which there is no nook or cranny that is not a click away.  The counter-argument, and Carr-Gomm makes it himself, is that human fascination with the nude is eternal. So technology has really changed nothing other than to make the nude prosaic and maybe slightly less interesting. Books. Films. Videotape. The Internet. Nudity is a cross-platform driver.  There has been a widening experience of nudity since the sixties, but this has also coincided with the availability of cheap holidays to climates where it is fun to be nude.
I am not certain whether nakedness is a serious subject to be lightly treated, or the opposite. Philip Carr-Gomm obviously isn’t completely sure, either, because this is a serious and funny book that is certainly revealing, and also very naughty, with extraordinary pictures of naked people, often behaving very oddly. There is still room for more scholarship in this field, but Carr-Gomm has contributed a deeply amusing first draft of this odd history. Of all the books featuring pictures of people without clothes, this ought to be something of a classic, given the eccentricity of the subject. An amazing story.  Read it naked.

Jonathan Miller, Antimedia

Strip club: Why are we obsessed with getting our kit off?

Whether it’s used purely for fun, or to make a statement, getting our kit off always causes a stir. John Walsh lays bare the history of nakedness

The Independent 24 April 2010

From rugby-pitch streakers to the volunteers for Spencer Tunick’s photo-calls, public nakedness is always news. The sight of humankind disporting itself outside the regions of bathroom or boudoir can still shock us. Naked ramblers like Vincent Bethell and Stephen Gough, who habitually wander the English countryside clad only in Karrimor rucksacks and stout boots, have been thrown into prison numerous times for “breaches of the peace”, as though revealing the bodies we all possess beneath our polite carapace of clothing is likely to provoke a riot.

Every group of activists sooner or later discovers the usefulness of the birthday suit as a uniform of rebellion, and a visual rallying cry. Demonstrators for UK animal rights, the Polish Women’s Party and the right to breastfeed in public, anti-nuclear protests in San Francisco, protests against G8 summits in Canada and Edinburgh, and against education cuts in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, all chose nakedness as their most potent symbol of passive aggression. And of course the human body is a handy, pink canvas for any protest. “Each of us is a walking billboard,” says Philip Carr-Gomm, author of A Brief History of Nakedness, “whose skin offers prime advertising space. If you want your message distributed free and worldwide, just paint it on your naked body, walk into the street and call Associated Press.”

In his book, Carr-Gomm, a specialist in English magic, Druidism and Wiccan arcana, investigates the ways in which nakedness has, over the centuries, been employed to further religious, political and cultural goals. His intention is to establish why nudity/nakedness excites and upsets some people to such a degree. . . . The shock quality of nakedness has abated over the past 30 years, as we have grown used to unclothed rugby, surfing, skydiving, and middle-aged women’s calendular exploits. Nakedness has become a style choice for sophisticates on the beach or at the rock festival. But it’s good to be reminded of its emblematic quality, its role in protest, its power as reality-check. Because, in the right circumstances, nudity has been a weapon, an act of conscious defiance, a statement of the individual’s right to exist for his or her own amusement, without being clamped into movements, uniforms or the chains of social inhibition. Nakedness rocks.

‘A Brief History of Nakedness’ by Philip Carr-Gomm, published by Reaktion Books, £19.95

See Full Independent Feature

A Brief History of Nakedness is most rewarding when Carr-Gomm focuses on the intersection of nudity and politics. His examples of naked protests are striking and often humorous.’ The Chronicle, Washington DC.

‘An erudite examination of the layers of contradictions that have surrounded our approaches to nakedness.’ Time Out

‘Now pick up Philip Carr-Gomm’s richly illustrated history of nakedness… Enjoy the extraordinary range of bodies splayed across its pages. Nude air travel. (“No hot drinks were served.”) The Calendar Girls. A goggle-eyed Aleister Crowley practising yoga in the buff. Streaker Erica Roe being flanked by two policemen’s helmets. Better still, read Carr-Gomm’s survey of the complex and often contradictory ways in which nakedness has been thought about down the years.’ Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Telegraph Review 29 May 2010

[‘A Brief History of Nakedness’ is not a] serious academic history. In one respect its aim is much more ambitious. For its author is a psychologist, psychotherapist and popular writer, guided by a strong commitment to libertarian values. In the manner of a Jungian auteur, he undertakes a polymath survey of attitudes to the naked body across thousands of years. Carr-Gomm retains an abiding interest in the magical, mystical and religious values that absorb the first third of his book as he takes us on a colourful caravan across the centuries of Asiatic and European history. These bright threads of experience show how the hippie culture of the 1960s followed well-established pathways of European spiritualism and ancient meditation in which various forms of nakedness featured as initiations into deeper truths. For Judaeo-Christian as well as Hindu mystics have used the naked body to bear witness to the virtues of poverty and chastity in their journey to virtue, whether Francis of Assisi barefoot in the snow or naked Quakers ranting in London streets during the English Revolution and Russian Doukhobours marching across Canada in nude family groups to defend their faith.

Some of the best passages in Brief History are critical commentaries on cultural productions in theatre, opera, dance and sculpture during the past 50 years and Carr-Gomm reminds us that the body is rarely allowed to be publicly naked… the author conveys his subject in an accessible and fluent style that takes the reader into the extraordinary diversity of the nude….’ Professor Joseph Melling, The Institute of Historical Research, Reviews in History.

‘The author delves into three related topics: nudity in religion, nudity as a form of political protest, and the acceptance of nudity in today’s popular culture. And he does a pretty good job on all three…The coverage of India’s religions in the second chapter is especially strong. Jewish and Christian nude traditions also get solid treatment. Then the author turns to recent decades to explore nudity in political protest – everything from naked peace signs, to breast-feeding, to animal rights. We are treated to a British perspective on American prudery.’ Dr Paul LeValley, Naturally Magazine.

‘There are many historical associations between nakedness and mysticism, magic and witchcraft, across the world. Some modern Pagans go naked in their rites as a spiritual and magical practice. Most have probably swum naked, few seem troubled by other’s nudity whether clad or not themselves, and very few indeed would confuse anything as important as morality with keeping the body covered at all times. All Pagans have skin, and few of us seem particularly anxious about that. For many, it probably carries some echoes of the romanticised, ancient,  Arcadian, vision of oneness with Nature found in Ovid’s  Fasti, where: “People lived in the open and went about nude, Inured to heavy downpours from rain-filled winds.” (II. 33-4 (Kline, 2004))… [Philip Carr-Gomm] offers ‘A Brief History of Nakedness’, not in any remotely prurient spirit, but as a lively, well-written and thoughtful consideration of the many meanings nudity can have for those who, in some circumstances, choose to go naked, and the many ways these behaviours can be construed by the wider society.’ John Macintyre, Pagan Dawn Magazine.

‘A third of Carr-Gomm’s book is devoted to a narrative hardly explored in religious studies: the way in which it has been used by the religious to get closer to the Divine. Beginning with a survey of the use of nudity in Witchcraft and modern Paganism, the book leads readers back in time to its use in antiquity: in Greece, Rome and Persia. After moving to the East, in particular to explore the Jain and Hindu Naga Baba traditions, the author then provides an extensive and detailed description of the use of nakedness in Judaism and Christianity. To me this was the most exciting section of the book. I learned that, far from being a state to be avoided, nudity was welcomed by many Christian sects and individuals, beginning with Jesus himself, who was baptised and crucified naked. The Old Testament prophets were sometimes naked, and St. Francis of Assisi stripped in front of the Bishop as a sign of rejection of worldliness when he decided to renounce his wealthy life and become a poor brother.
By the time I had finished this book I felt liberated, as if a deep truth had been redeemed from my own tradition. In the images of Christ by Michelangelo and El Greco reproduced in the book I was able to see the founder of our faith in a new light: Jesus of Nazareth as God-in-man with nothing covering him. I understood now what St.Jerome meant when he said ‘Nudus nudum Iesum sequi’ (Naked, I follow the naked Jesus). I believe that this is where the book’s richest gift to Christians is found: in its daring to explore this idea. As a metaphor, Jesus standing skyclad before God and humankind (be it at his baptism, death or at the resurrection) is a potent symbol of the total openness and vulnerability of God. To most Christians Jesus is still a human face of the divine (be it literal or metaphorical) and a naked, bleeding, god-man on a cross is a rich and liberating image of deity – an image that cannot fail to shock and move those who look upon it. It is an antidote to the highly toxic God images that Christianity has been saddled with for too long. Carr-Gomm’s book, with its portrayal of a skyclad Christ, has given me back something of my own faith. It has given me a picture of a God we can trust because this God stands naked before us; which translates as honest, vulnerable, and open. I urge all Christians to read this beautiful and liberating book.’ Mark Townsend, author of Jesus Outside the Box: Twelve Spiritual Tales of the Unexpected.

A Brief History of Nakedness fizzes with interesting facts and ideas, many of which I had never come across. [It] is a thought-provoking survey of the fleshiness of human life. It is also a beautifully produced book with excellent illustrations that have been carefully chosen to illuminate ideas rather than provide puerile titillation.’ Fr Martin Boland, Dean of Brentwood Cathedral.

‘…Now I’ve decided that we just need a naked march on the Pentagon. The protesters need to be naked to symbolize the vulnerability of the soldiers and the people of Afghanistan, and they need to march on the Pentagon because it’s full of the pricks who run the war.
All of these ideas and more were inspired by reading Philip Carr-Gomm’s new book A Brief History of Nakedness, which, even if it doesn’t make you want to get naked for peace, will make you want to get naked.
I like Philip Carr-Gomm. I like his style. He takes a risk in the very first sentence: “Here’s a suggestion: stop reading and start taking off your clothes.” Most writers would be wary of asking their readers to stop reading. I didn’t take the author up on either part of his suggestion. I wanted to take off my clothes, but it was daytime, and the apartment has a lot of windows… Carr-Gomm is knowledgeable but not arrogant, thorough but not boring, and A Brief History of Nakedness, with its fascinating photos and anecdotes, is a pleasure to read.’ Alan Good,

‘Philip Carr-Gomm is co-author of the excellent ‘The Book of English Magic’ which has been reviewed elsewhere by us on GoodReads. This is in the same vein – a measured and sympathetic account of what might be regarded as a human eccentricity that, on closer examination, suggests that it is the clothing convention and not nakedness that may be odder still. It is, as the title suggests, a history of nudity and nakedness but not in high art or in commerce (adult entertainment) or as sexual phenomenon but as a spiritual, political and self-expressive tool, including comment on its use in the arts outside the academic tradition.
Like his book on magic (which is a masterpiece of its type), it is descriptive rather than analytical or theoretical but with a considerable number of good quality photographs. It avoids the prurient and each picture is directly relevant to the text. While not afraid to show the naked body beautiful where relevant, the book is heartening in showing the essential ordinariness of most expressions of the naked…
Carr-Gomm is a kind man with an open nature – or so this book and ‘English Magic’ would suggest – so the motives of the naked are mostly taken at face value as courageous and honourable. At one point, perhaps without realising precisely the import of what he is saying, he produces a devastating argument against the theoretical approach towards ‘objectification’ of the grumbling and humourless ideologues of post-68 feminism and Marxism. The fascinating short description of the sense of empowerment given to life models and others who choose to make themselves apparently vulnerable by their nakedness suggests that, under certain conditions, objectification is positively liberating – and, of course, it is for free persons to decide what those conditions are. He confirms this as his own experience with all the diffidence of the true eccentric Englishman finding that transgression is a path to freedom. The general picture of the popular nude and of the naked is one of fun and wit rather than deadly purpose.’ Tim Pendry,

‘As is inevitable for a book on this theme, it is full of interesting snippets: reverse streaking at all-nude events; the different responses of the cast and audience of Hair in different countries; the marketing of streaker figurines for table football, to take three examples at random. The author also manages to give depth to historical sketches with great economy, as for example in the discussion of nudism and the Third Reich. One of Carr-Gomm’s strengths is his ability to connect the ancient and the contemporary. Thus a discussion of the myth of Lady Godiva includes descriptions of a host of modern re-enactments; or the account of early Christian meanings of nudity jumps forward to include mention of contemporary progressive Christian attitudes to nudity. This back-and-forth between past and present, while it might work against a strict historicisation of the meanings of nudity, has the advantage of connecting the familiar and the unfamiliar in readable ways. …as a book that aims to bring together a wealth of disparate material along thematic lines, to address both a general and an academic readership and to make a lively case for the freedom of naked embodiment and for the liberation from bodily shame – it does a fine job.’ Dr Ruth Barcan, Review in ‘Cultural Sociology’