2020 has become a year of revolution. We’re fighting for racial equality, the end to gender-based violence, and our economies need drastic reform in order to survive an unprecedented pandemic situation. Would it really seem that out of place if, amongst all these other revolutions, we encounter one more? Maybe 2020 is the year nudism becomes a thing again.
Think about it: You’ll save so much money on clothing and you’ll have way more space in your home. Perhaps more frequent nude encounters will even bring about the end of body shaming! If you think this sounds like a bizarre utopian dream, you’re exactly right – that’s exactly how nudist movements began.
The origins of a movement
Nudism was born in England sometime in the 1920’s in response to what was perceived as a postwar crisis in civilisation, writes art and design historian, Annebella Pollen.
Most who were compelled to join the movement were artists, writers, psychoanalysts and physicians, writes Pollen. Many of the influential figures involved –like Havelock Ellis and George Bernard Shaw – helped to create a culture surrounding their Utopian vision.
She quotes Richard Martin, who claimed that, “Never has there been a Utopian wish or realisation without serious consideration of clothing”.
The early nudists were, essentially, taking dress reform – the reason women no longer wear corsets – a step further. Clothing was seen as a kind of societal oppression or enslavement. Shedding these layers, then, was seen as the opposite: liberation. The movement was characterised by simplicity – in dress, as well as in other aspects of life. Like Marie Kondo, but if none of your clothes happened to spark joy.
Those who embraced thelifestyle called themselves gymnosophists – from the Greek words for “naked” and “wisdom”. They even had a journal in circulation in the 30’s which they titled Gymnos. Pollen quotes the lofty assertions of one Gymnos contributer, who stated that it “stands for all-round regeneration, in that it changes the false for the true; bondage for freedom; hypocrisy and cant for truth of purpose and resolve, and, above all, elevates the mind, and prompts the soul to strive for heights far above the petty and mean things which are attached to civilisation, as we know it to-day.”
He continued, “Let us then dispense with clothes and with all attributes that are mean, vain-glorious and untruthful, and by so doing usher in the Golden Age.”
Nudism promised a return to all the things that had been forgotten by 20th century society. The founder of the American Gymnosophical Association (that was a whole thing), Herman Soshinski, declared that, through nudism “the body shall become beautiful again, reappear as the ‘Image of God.’”.
As you can see, unlike today where walking around in your birthday suit is seen as an unusual quirk, people were pretty invested in this.
How did it work?
In practice, Pollen writes, early nudists inhabited a spectrum of beliefs and a range of commitment to the cause. “These ranged from utopian dedication to the creation of a wholly naked world that promised a panacea for all social problems to a more moderate adoption of occasional sunbathing, under appropriate conditions, in the minimum of attire, for the purposes of improved health and well-being.”
There were, of course, a few big dreamers. These “dared to dream of futurist worlds in which clothes would be entirely abandoned or conceptually completely redrawn”. Livia Gershon writes that these participants believed that nakedness – and exposing the genitals to fresh air – was crucial. They hoped for a time in which the naked body would be released from shame, and from being immediately sexualised
The reality of the English climate, however, led most to adopt a more realistic approach and make concessions for the country’s sunless days. They found total nakedness to be unnecessary.
The end of popular nudism
Gershon writes that this optimistic movement came to lose much of its utopian ideology in the wake of the second world war. It had been harnessed by the Nazi’s to promote eugenics movement in search of (their idea of ) ‘ideal’ bodies and ‘ideal’ genetics.
“While the Nazis began outlawing nudist groups in 1932,” she writes, “they also coopted their sense of cultural crisis and celebration of bodily ideals. One Third Reich text declares: ‘We celebrate the women with the best racial background and the most beautiful bodies for breeding… No one will be able to conceal his or her flaws and weaknesses behind clothes.”’
The idealistic and optimistic movement had been twisted and tainted. As a result, post-WW2 practitioners no longer believed that stripping would usher in a Golden Age, and only did it to relax.
So, while it might not be a great idea to suddenly start walking around in the buff – particularly in public spaces – the idea of a nudist Utopia does give us something interesting to think about.
Our societies are so fixated on what we have and how we look, that we often lose sight of the really important things. Women’s bodies are overly sexualised without their permission, and often cited as the reason they become victims of sexual crimes. Would it not be a better world, then, if we could worry less about what we’re wearing and more about the people we become? Would it not be better if our bodies were not merely sexual assets, but seem as the vessels which carry something more important? Perhaps there really is something to be said for nudism – although at the time of writing, winter is coming and the idea doesn’t seem overly appealing.
Regardless of whether you decide to believe in the idea of a naked Golden Age or not, the Essential Millennial team would like to remind you that we’re currently in the middle of a pandemic. If you opt to wear your birthday suit, you’d better still wear your mask.