Clothing was presented in western cultures as an achievement of civilized beings in their process of differentiation from beasts and animals. In Plato´s version of the Prometheus myth, the author describes how humans were transformed by the intervention of one of the Titans. Prometheus stole fire from the workshop of Athena and Hephaistos, and gave it to mankind,
and in this way man was supplied with the means of life […] He was not long in inventing articulate speech and names; and he also constructed houses and clothes and shoes and beds, and drew sustenance from the earth. (Protagoras, 322 a-b).
Nevertheless, Cynic philosophers (from the 6th to the 3rd Century B.C.) rejected conventional social values and the polis lifestyle; they were in favour of simple habits and living in agreement with nature. Clothing was a symbol of these ideals, so everyone can recognize followers of this school of thought by their apparel: an old cloak and a staff. Their hero was Heracles, not Prometheus.
In the 18th Century, opposition between nature and civilization was a regular topic for discussion in philosophical circles. For enligthened reformers, civilization and progress were intertwined with science and technology innovations. Two texts stand out as representative examples of one of the perspectives adopted in these matters. One is Lettres persanes, by Montesquieu, written in 1721, particularly the part devoted to the Troglodyte fable, a description of a society which lives according to natural impulses but that ends replacing former habits by the impositions of a government and education. The other is Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, by Diderot, published in 1772, where an elder Tahitian reveals the true order of nature, which has nothing to do with Western rules. Obviously, Tahitian moral, following pure instincts of nature, is superior to Western social behaviour in every aspect (later the myth of Tahiti grew, expressed in P. Gauguin’s paintings and other manifestations).
From the Renaissance on, some depictions of humans resting and having fun in a garden (the representation of nature domesticated) transmit the image of an eternal state of innocence. A remarkable example is Lucas Cranach, the elder, “The Golden Age” (c. 1530), an idealistic period of time when people lived in eternal peace, as nature provided all what is needed. Technology in this age was superfluous. The figures in Cranach`s painting –nude- were arranged in animated poses. Note that men and women are differentiated by their flesh tone (women are paler).
Lucas Cranach, the elder, “The Golden Age”, c. 1530. Wikipedia.
Idyllic retirement to nature, in response to industrial society demands and effects on living conditions, was common among writers, artists and philosophers. A well-known case is H. David Thoreau, but there are many others. In Walden (1854), he wrote inspiring words for the pro-naturalist doctrines (according to the version provided by www.gutenberg.org):
Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself. I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did.
For similar reasons, at the end of the 19th century naturism movements emerged, advocating from a political and cultural perspective social nudity. In Paris there was an anarchist colony formed by approximately hundred individuals around the figure of Emile Gravelle. As a contribution to the expression of the ideals of the movement they published the journal L’Etat Naturel, from 1894 to 1898. According to this and other publications we know their positions on scientific and technological matters. These can be summarized saying that science is an invention to repair what was devastated by human actions and by a technological way of thinking. Other assertions of the Gravelle’s circle were that material progress is the result of slavery; epidemic diseases are a consequence of civilization, and science is nothing but presumptuous knowledge (Roselló, 2008, 25). These ideas crossed the borders and reached other countries, among them Spain, whose history is fully reported in the book edited by the sociologist José María Roselló ¡Viva la naturaleza! (Virus Editorial, 2008). In the early 1900´s a group of people from Germany established an anarcho-naturalist colony next to Ascona (Switzerland), where strict vegetarianism and nudism was practised, and conventions on dress codes and marriage were also rejected. The initial promoters came from a Munich neighbourhood called Schwabing, and it was known as Monte Veritá. The venue attracted many artists, writers, and intellectuals such as Sigmund Freud, Hermann Hesse, Carl Gustav Jung, D. H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel, and Max Weber. The history of this cultural movement is the subject matter of Freie Liebe und Anarchie (Allitera, 2009), written by Ulrike Voswinckel, whose Spanish version (Contra la vida establecida, El Paseo Editorial) will come out in the next few days (see http://elpaseoeditorial.com/ps16/prestashop/es/inicio/24-contra-la-vida-establecida.html).
In the 1960s anarcho-naturist movements kept the commitments in a context formed by new elements: the influences of oriental spiritual religions, anti-war protests, counter-culture expressions, the scale of military technology spending, the cold war, psychedelia… Many communes were created across the United States (a phenomena studied in the book by Timothy Millers The 60s communes: Hippies and Beyond, Syracuse UP, 1999). Micah L. Issitt says in Hippies: A Guide to an American Subulture (Greenwood Press, 2009) that
Another major facet of hip [Hippie] sexuality was the acceptance of nudity, a crucial step toward addressing the issues of `body image’ in American culture. Hippies reveled in the simple pleasure of being nude in public and in private, which contrasted sharply with mainstream attitudes about nudity. Though nudist communities existed before hippies, hip nudist challenged societal norms by flaunting their nudity in public, despite objections and laws prohibiting ‘indicency’(Issitt, 2009, 21-22).
We must remember that counterculture movements were also responsible for ideas and practices that led to the information technology society, which was considered a liberating tool, not an “authoritarian technology” in the terms used by Lewis Mumford. Nevertheless, present uses of the web do not follow these early expectations.
At present, every year the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) takes place, where participants use human-powered transport and ride in public nudity to contribute to a cleaner and body-positive world image.
WNBR passing Holborn underground station 11 June 2016. Wikipedia
References and further readings
Micah L. Issitt (2009), Hippies: A Guide to an American Subulture, Greenwood Press; Timothy Millers (1999), The 60s communes: Hippies and Beyond, Syracuse UP; José María Roselló (2008), ¡Viva la naturaleza!, Virus Editorial; Ulrike Voswinckel (2009), Freie Liebe und Anarchie, ed Allitera, (Spanish version (2017), Contra la vida establecida, El Paseo Editorial).