Why we now dress in the nude

There are some things, which in retrospect cannot be explained all that easily. In particular, the old question about why man shed his fur. With the ironic slogan “I’d rather go naked than wear a fur”, a few years ago the animal protection organization Peta advertised against wearing furs, with the help of an advertising campaign and naked supermodels. Along the same lines is one of the latest hypotheses about those circumstances by which man’s stately fur degenerated to become those offensive body hairs with which we are blessed today. This hypothesis states that we people began showing our skin over a million years ago. Our species was so harried by fleas, ticks and lice that we shed our fur for hygienic reasons as it were. From then on, according to a team of British scientists, it was considered smart and attractive to display one’s naked skin. Because quite obviously the “naked monkey” was preferable in the selection of a partner, which might have been the reason for his triumphal procession across the world.

Nevertheless, a lot has happened since then. In order to protect parts of the body that had now become vulnerable to heat and cold, clothes were developed which included an ingenious system of fashions and costumes which is constantly changed and renewed. Racists use the obvious differences in skin color as a means of discrimination. At the same time, naked skin has become a sort of super mark of attractiveness. Whether for an accountant or a supermodel: besides a fit and slender body, anyone who strives for social recognition also needs perfect skin. A huge contrast thus always emerges between the intentional “natural” look and the well proportioned artifact into which we have transformed our bodies.

Really, it was only a matter of time until it became possible also to be seen naked with a home-made deluxe body out on the street. But now the time has come. Someone who cannot decide what to wear simply goes naked. The nude look is the fashion tip for 2010. Never before has the famous plea for economy in modern design, “less is more”, been taken more seriously than with this “nude fashion style”. As with architecture, where modern buildings are stripped of their leaves down to their skeletons, now fashion also presents itself in a similar way and makes one thing clear: “Underneath our clothes, we are all naked.” Thus light, chiffon-like fabrics in warm powdery tones, which pass from tender rosé of the English Tea rose, through champagne tones up to veritable “pork sausage” colours, both cover and uncover the body and alternate between garment and openly experienced “nudism”. This new minimalism is met in particular in the world of show business. Young star Scarlett Johansson uses the nude look to emphasize her feminine contours and her prim, youthfully innocent sex appeal, just as the no less attractive actress Angelina Jolie, who appeared in the new fashion colour at the Cannes Film Festival. Her Versace evening gown in a subdued pink which was reminiscent of rosy cheeks, enveloped the body of the famous sex bomb, while at the same time a risqué slit exposed the well-shaped legs. A bright red color then highlighted the pouting lips and formed a conscious counterpoint to the otherwise skilfully colourless appearance.

No wonder Jolie, who is known for loving to wear black, likes these new tones. For, like black, white or grey, these powdery beige tones are not real colors, at least not if they are worn by a fair-skinned American. Instead they demonstrate the absence of color, because both dress and its wearer near each other in color. What emerges is a skillful interplay between uncovering and covering, physicality and disembodiment. An interplay, which British actress, Tilda Swinton, knows all about. The actress, who happily presents herself as androgynous with her masculine haircuts, consciously produces the dissolving of inherent forms in a drape of flowing skin-colored fabrics. She styles herself to become a fashion icon, by seeming to display at the same time both body and dress. With this unusual appearance the diva appears as an inaccessible art being – as an incredible fable figure like the ones we also know from her films.

However, despite all of this modern minimalism, examples of a similar stylish daring can also be found by looking at history. At the forefront are the chemise dresses, which emerged around 1800 and which were likewise called “naked fashion”. Fashion-conscious ladies in the Napoleonic era wore wafer-thin cotton dresses that were gathered under the bust over skin-colored underclothes. At that time the mock nudity dispersed of course not only admiration, but also outrage and open refusal. But the envious remarks had little effect on fashion conscious ladies such as Joséphine, wife of Napoleon, and the famous socialite, Juliette Recamier. Even in cold weather they wore the airy dresses, which were mostly made of wafer-thin cotton muslin or cambric, and besides common colds sometimes also caught dangerous pneumonia, afflictions which were quickly consolidated under the expressive term “muslin illness”. But neither illness nor scandal could deter the ladies, most of whom were very young, from the latest fashion. This fashionable form of liberation was clearly very important to them.

The American sociologist Richard Sennett, who came to fame with his pessimistic commentary about modernity, naturally views this in a more critical light. In his theory on the tyranny of intimacy he reaches the conclusion that before 1750 the general public would have resembled a stage, on which each protagonist understood how to disguise himself according to status and rank. The people of that time played parts such as master and servant, according to his opinion, and would always have been conscious of this staging. But then the game got serious. The decorative symbols and masks became standardized and thus freely available. Today, everybody uses this reservoir of symbols for a personal staging which would be keenly studied and interpreted by his environment. Every tattoo and every accessory would be considered not merely a symbol, but a “truthful” expression of the individual. “The more uniform images of the body became, the more seriously they were taken by people as an indication of the personality,” Sennett believes.
Italian-born performance artist, Vanessa Beecroft, knows just how seriously. Ensuing from her own eating disorders, she dedicates her performances to the prevalent body images. Her performances involving mostly naked women are reminiscent only at first glance of fashion shoots or catwalk shows. With her Tableaux Vivants of naked women who are dressed merely with transparent tights or long boots, rather she takes up the themes of self-destruction, eroticism, fashion mania and the limitless desire for affirmation and admiration. She describes her stagings as “minimalist sculptures”, with which not only her performers undress, but also the spectators. Not because they would have to get undressed, but because they always become a part of the performed piece, and must feel unavoidably like a voyeur.
And this is the dilemma with open nakedness. Although we secretly regard them with interest, we nevertheless feel extremely uneasy in the presence of all those naked people. But because even the nude look will remain only a short fashion fad, we should not allow to spoil the fun. It is after all only a game of “emperor’s new clothes”. And if there was one thing Immanuel Kant knew: “It is always better, nevertheless, to be a fool in fashion than a fool out of fashion.”