Covered or Uncovered
From Naked to Suited up
A mix of anecdote and historical interpretation about clothing and nakedness, and the taboos surrounding them
What has happened to human beings since we walked naked across the savannah? We braved the cold, we loved being attractive, we learned how to make an impression – but above all we felt embarrassed. Embarrassment was the original motivation for covering up. It started with a judiciously placed strand of fibre, in some cases developing into a tent-like robe. In Covered or Uncovered Mineke Schipper describes attitudes to bodily exposure in different cultures.
For millennia we felt no embarrassment about nakedness, but one thing that could make a man look ridiculous was a spontaneous erection, and the oldest garment of all consisted of a thread wound round the foreskin to tuck the penis up out of sight under a strap worn round the hips.
Little by little, people began to decorate themselves, with tattoos, feathers, paint, nose rings, armbands, chains, headdresses, shoes – and clothing. Then, on leaving Africa for colder northern climes, we started to dress. Research shows that pubic lice began to nestle in the hair of our warm lower bodies between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago, many thousands of years after head lice, which could infest naked humans.
Nude bathing remained the norm in Europe until diseases like plague and syphilis became rampant in the sixteenth century and the authorities closed down bathhouses. It was then that the first bathing costumes emerged, complete with stockings and headgear for both men and women. These were remarkably similar to the ‘burkini’, the swimsuit in which pious Muslim women may enjoy the water today.
There have been times in which European men were every bit as coquettish and ostentatious as women, decking themselves out in costly and colourful clothes, complete with wigs, hats and ornate shoes. But with the French Revolution, came in more sober attire; men opted for uniformity and an air of utility, and it was no longer important to be seen as beautiful. For women it still is. Schipper delves into controversies concerning the degree of female nudity permitted in Europe, Africa, China and the Arab countries and shows how different cultures have tried to curb nakedness.