Clothing Optional Readings

None of the fiction and non-fiction books briefly reviewed here is specifically about being naked or nude. But the writers do talk about it, how it feels, why one might like it. A sense of the experience is conveyed, from various points of view. Perhaps it's the next best thing to actually trying it.

You will find, in these short reviews, an introduction to writings that express quite a diversity of positive attitudes towards nakedness. They deal with many other important matters as well - such as freedom, personal identity, journeys, time, nature, and fate.

You don't need to wear anything when reading any of the following...

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Lucy Irvine - Castaway

It's a fantasy of the Garden of Eden experienced, largely, as a nightmare. There is a romance about desert islands, but the reality is rather depressing. Not only does the author have to confront the harshness of tropical nature, but her companion on the island doesn't seem to be a very nice guy. About what one should expect from accepting a year-long blind date on a speck of land in the middle of nowhere. Sounds too much like real life, doesn't it?

Only the unlimited opportunity for nakedness seems to make it worthwhile.

The story, in brief, is that Lucy has answered a personal ad placed by an older man seeking a companion to accompany him on a year-long stay on a small island near the Equator north of Australia. Lucy goes, with some misgivings. Unfortunately, they don't hit it off, either emotionally or physically. To make matters worse, even their survival skills combined are not quite up to the challenge, and they eventually require outside assistance.

Fortunately, even from the start, Lucy is not a shy girl:

The minute the helicopter was out of sight I took off all my clothes. All white-bodied and beetroot-faced I stood facing G, nipples scrunched up in surprise at the sudden exposure. "Tea?" I asked, holding the word out in front of me like a screen.
To her companion's serious disappointment, sex is not what Lucy came for. She doesn't reveal whether she knew it beforehand or not, but it's clear that her real hunger is for nakedness:
With a little inner pirouette of excitement I realised just how much there was to look forward to tomorrow. The thought of being all day naked in the sun was delicious enough in itself, but there was the whole of our new world to explore.

Lucy's story touches on a number of themes that Robyn Davidson and Colin Fletcher also explore. These are themes that are probably present in most people's concept of the "wilderness experience". Among these are self-reliance, rising to the challenges just of surviving in a natural world that is both nurturing and hostile at the same time, a sense of time very different from that experienced in the "civilized" world, immersion in what philosophers call "process". Nakedness intensifies the experience of each of these.

Soon the island was once more invading me physically and mentally, claiming all my attention. I had to explore, to wander, to be naked and timeless and warm, to search the sky for signs of rain, the trees and ground for things to fill our bellies, to look ever outwards abandoning introspection and speculation, taking notice only of all that is immediately around me.

Lucy writes well and has an impressive vocabulary. Her story works, even as a simple desert island adventure tale. It has been made into a movie, of the same name, directed by Nicholas Roeg, which is also very worthwhile.

Roeg, incidentally (or maybe more than that), has directed other movies having themes that resonate with this story. His most well-known movie, probably, is the haunting science fiction tale The Man Who Fell to Earth. But the more relevant work is his early film, Walkabout, a story based on the Australian aboriginal rite of passage. In this case, two children, a teenage girl and her younger brother, are stranded in the outback. They are befriended by a young aborigine on his own walkabout, and the encounter turns out tragically for him. However, the white youngsters survive and experience the essential features of the initiatory rite. The turning point in this process is symbolized when the girl finally lets go of the body shame taught by her culture, and she is happy to swim naked with her companions.

Robyn Davidson - Tracks

Robyn's story has much in common with the other two wilderness stories here. It is also set in the same part of the world, Australia, as Lucy Irvine's story and, not surprisingly, involves a trek (in 1977) through the desert outback.

However, it isn't quite the customary sort of walkabout that has been a part of the Aboriginal cultural tradition for perhaps as long as 40,000 years. For one thing, Robyn was in her twenties rather than a teenager. More significantly, this was no solitary walkabout. Robyn was accompanied by four camels, a dog, and at times by an old Aborigine, a gaggle of press people, and the photographer, Rick Smolan. Smolan is given to organizing large projects. After Robyn's trek, he went on to such endeavors as the "Day in the Life of..." series of books and 24 Hours in Cyberspace.

And, also unlike a traditional walkabout, this was rather a large project. Robyn's trek covered about 1700 miles, from Alice Springs to the western coast of Australia - mostly through desert. (Hence the need for four camels.) The trip required financial resources, eventually supplied by The National Geographic, in whose pages Robyn's story was first told. Smolan later produced a related CD-ROM and coffee table book based on the same material, called From Alice to Ocean. The book is a good effort of its kind, and a fine way to gain a better visual idea of the trek. The CD-ROM is, perhaps, a little shallow and has managed to lose or distort a great deal of the original experience of Robyn's story.

In spite of the (necessary) commercial support behind the trek, the inner essence of it was quite like a traditional walkabout, since it was a journey in search of one person's self. Other notions that are now not so uncommon also apply, such as "the journey is the reward." She summarises:

The two important things I did learn were that you are as powerful and as strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most important part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.

Robyn alludes to one more essential lesson in one of her chapter titles: "shedding burdens". Clothing is one burden that Robyn was, increasingly as the journey progressed, able to shed. It wasn't something she wished a big deal to be made of, so she kept her periods of nakedness to times she was alone. Nevertheless, at a late stage in the trip

By now I was utterly deprogrammed. I walked along naked usually, clothes being not only putrid but unnecessary. My skin had been baked a deep terra-cotta brown and was the consistency of harness leather. The sun no longer penetrated it. I retained my hat.

Clothing is symbolic of a kind of security that people ordinarily depend on. But it is a security that is constantly at odds with freedom:

To be free one needs constant and unrelenting vigilance over one's weaknesses. A vigilance which requires a moral energy most of us are incapable of manufacturing. We relax back into the moulds of habit. They are secure, they bind us and keep us contained at the expense of freedom. To break the moulds, to be heedless of the seductions of security is an impossible struggle, but one of the few that count. To be free is to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble.

Going naked is starkly symbolic of that process, and it can be a joyful one. As Robyn describes an episode that began while she watched her camels playing where they had stopped for the day to camp in a dust bowl:

I had been watching and laughing at them for a while and suddenly, spontaneously, threw off all my clothes and joined them in a romp. We rolled and we kicked and we sent the dust flying over each other. Diggity went apoplectic with delight. I was covered with thick caked orange dust and my hair was matted. It was the most honest hour of unselfconscious fun I had ever had.

Colin Fletcher - The Man Who Walked Through Time

In 1963 Colin Fletcher became the first person ever to walk the entire length of Grand Canyon. (Could a native American, one adapted to the terrain by virtue of having lived an entire life there, have preceded him? Would a project like this have occurred to such a one? Perhaps, but certainly we have no telling of the tale to reflect upon, if indeed it was ever done.)

Again we have a narrative of a journey, and one in which the theme of freedom appears. But there is also a new element: the sense of time. Lots of time.

Grand Canyon is a place that lends itself to thoughts of time. As a geological feature, the canyon itself is very young, a mere seven million years or so (but still more than a thousand times the length of recorded human history). That's only a tenth of the time that has elapsed since dinosaurs went extinct. But so deeply has it cut through layers of rock, that in the inner gorge at the bottom of the canyon, the Colorado flows past schists and granite that were formed a billion and a half years ago. The Canyon is as vast in the temporal dimension as in the spatial. Both time and space are on a scale that is far different from the human scale.

In Colin's tale we lean little about the inner drives that motivated him to make this trip. This book is not one of introspections, but rather about the adventure itself and the author's reflections on external reality.

It was in May, roughly a month into the journey, that heat began to present a serious problem, which led to a simple solution:

All at once it occurred to me that in the privacy of the Canyon I could carry my thermostatic clothing system to its logical conclusion. And I promptly stripped to hat, socks, and boots.

This step, taken purely for pragmatic reasons, quickly revealed several important insights:

Nakedness is a delightful condition. And it keeps you very pleasantly cool - especially, I suppose, if you happen to be a man. But as I walked on eastward that afternoon through my private, segregated, Tonto world ... I found that I had gained more than coolness. I felt a quite unexpected freedom from restraint. And after a while I found that I had moved on to a new kind of simplicity.

Thereafter, the ideas of nakedness and freedom tend to merge, and the author stresses them together when he relates what he has begun to understand about the flow of time:

Naked and free on the Tonto Platform I heard and understood with my whole being what I had begun to hear and understand at the foot of Bass Trail. I accepted, totally, that the world of rocks, like all the other world we know, is dynamic. ... The rhythm of the rocks beats very slowly, that is all.

At the end of the journey, Colin again calls attention to his nakedness before offering a few thoughts on endings:

At this point my mind came back to the present - came back with an awareness of finality to my naked and now thoroughly dry body sitting beside Nankoweap Creek. ... Every journey except your last has an open end. And any journey of value is above all a chapter in a personal odyssey. Its end is not so much a goal attained as another point in a continuing process

Colin has written extensively on walking/hiking, including a book series, The Complete Walker. His advice is unambiguous:

The best dress for walking is nakedness.

Mark Twain - Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn

Until fairly recently, "skinny dipping", used to be a rather simple, uncomplicated matter, something discovered and practiced spontaneously by both adults and children as long as people have been around. It is the opposite - wearing some sort of costume to go swimming - that until recently was decidedly unusual.

How recently? Enough so that at least until perhaps 20 years ago in the US, for example, YMCA swimming classes and programs for boys actually required nudity. As is well known, skinny dipping is no longer a simple matter.

Mark Twain's two classic novels of life in the midwestern US of the mid 19th century remind us of times when it was simple.

There is in all of us a side to our selves which can be described as "undomesticated", "wild", "feral" - what human nature was before man became a domesticated animal. As parents of young children know all too well, this side of human nature expresses itself forcefully until we manage to "civilize" our offspring. This "civilizing" process has been, to some extent, necessary ever since the invention of agriculture, which requires widespread cooperation within a given human community.

But there are positive as well as well as negative aspects to our earlier undomesticated state, and it is valuable to not lose all memory of these positive aspects, to retain some component of our "wild" genetic heritage. Philosophers like Rousseau used to write nostalgically about the "noble savage". That was an over-simplification, but it is not entirely a myth either.

Clothing is one element of "civilization" which, under the right circumstances, is most easily dispensed with. Twain's stories remind us of how easily this could happen in the normal course of "growing up".

In the middle of Tom Saywer Tom is acutely distressed by Becky Thatcher's rejection, and he resolves to run away. He finds Huck Finn and (especially) Joe Harper to be more than willing accomplices. The three resolve to be "pirates". They arrange to steal some provisions and a raft, and in the dark of night slip away to an island in the middle of the Mississippi - to the wilderness. It is fairly explicit that they're leaving behind not only their own disappointments, but "civilization" itself:

It seemed glorious sport to be feasting in that wild, free way in the virgin forest of an unexplored and uninhabited island, far from the haunts of men, and they said they never would return to civilization.
Islands, like Tom Sawyer's or Lucy Irvine's Tuin, are apt symbols for a place apart from the civilized world, for primeval freedom itself.

Though "back to nature" is now a cliche, the impluse behind it is part of our genetic heritage. Tom appreciates this on the first morning on the island:

When Tom awoke in the morning, he wondered where he was. He sat up and rubbed his eyes and looked around. Then he comprehended. It was the cool gray dawn, and there was a delicious sense of repose and peace in the deep pervading calm and silence of the woods. Not a leaf stirred; not a sound obtruded upon great Nature's meditation.

It isn't long at all before the three boys lose their clothes:

Tom stirred up the other pirates and they all clattered away with a shout, and in a minute or two were stripped and chasing after and tumbling over each other in the shallow limpid water of the white sandbar. They felt no longing for the little village sleeping in the distance beyond the majestic waste of water. A vagrant current or a slight rise in the river had carried off their raft, but this only gratified them, since its going was something like burning the bridge between them and civilization.

They have their ups and downs on the islands, and bouts of homesickness. Tom manages to keep them there a few days, eventually revealing to them his plan for how they should return for their own funerals. In the meantime, they find a variety of ways to enjoy being naked. For instance,

It occurred to them that their naked skin represented flesh-colored "tights" very fairly; so they drew a ring in the sand and had a circus -- with three clowns in it, for none would yield this proudest post to his neighbor.

And later their fantasy adventure turned from pirates to Indians:

It was not long before they were stripped, and striped from head to heel with black mud, like so many zebras -- all of them chiefs, of course -- and then they went tearing through the woods to attack an English settlement.

Although, according to Tom's plan, this brief bit of Indian play occurs just before their return to civilization, the three boys realize the value of their adventure - a New World form of the walkabout rite of passage:

And behold, they were glad they had gone into savagery, for they had gained something; they found that they could now smoke a little without having to go and hunt for a lost knife; they did not get sick enough to be seriously uncomfortable.
(Smoking being one token of their outgrowing of childhood and their newfound maturity.)

Twain goes on in Huckleberry Finn to further consideration of the themes of freedom and journeys - of which Huck's trip on the river is symbolic. And nakedness is, almost as a matter of course, still part of it:

Soon as it was night out we shoved; when we got her out to about the middle we let her alone, and let her float wherever the current wanted her to; then we lit the pipes, and dangled our legs in the water, and talked about all kinds of things -- we was always naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us -- the new clothes Buck's folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn't go much on clothes, nohow.

Twain doesn't fail to point out, wryly, that lack of clothing is not only comfortable (except for the mosquitoes), but quite practical:

The waves most washed me off the raft sometimes, but I hadn't any clothes on, and didn't mind.

Mary Renault - The King Must Die

Mary Renault skillfully retells the legend of Theseus of Athens from the Athenian viewpoint. This isn't the "official" myth - it has been considerably elaborated and reworked into a more "historical" sort of tale.

In the Mediterranean bronze age, about 1500 BCE, Athens and the island of Crete were rivals. Hegemony belonged to Crete, by virtue of its powerful navy. The Cretan ruler, Minos, required tribute from weaker states. In the case of Athens, this consisted of fourteen young men and women each year to be sent to the palace at Knossos to be trained in performance of the bull dance. In practice, this meant eventual death for most, as only the strongest, most agile individuals were up to the challenge.

When he came of age, Theseus, son of King Aigeus, insisted on being sent with the other young Athenians. By his wits, physical prowess, and charm, he managed not only to survive, but to win the affection of Minos' daughter Ariadne. Eventually an earthquake struck Knossos, and in the ensuing chaos, Theseus escaped by ship with the young bull dancers - and Ariadne. Unfortunately, he and Ariadne had a falling out at Naxos on the way home, over her participation in bacchanalian revelry, which centered around the yearly ritual of putting the old year's king to death (whence the title of the book).

And Theseus is in for further misfortunes. The book concludes with his safe return to Athens. However, misinterpreted signals cause his father to think that Theseus has died, whereupon Aigeus takes his own life. This, too, seems to be foreshadowed by the book's title. The fate of kings in myth and legend is symbolic of the fate of their subjects.

In fact, the title refers to very ancient ritual/mythical traditions in the Aegean area, and elsewhere, in which every spring the old year's king would be put to death and a new one chosen. In the great tradition of Homer, Renault's book is a reflection on the ancient Greek notion of fate (moira), as well as a gripping adventure tale. The book's epigraph, straight from Achilles in Homer, is

Oh, Mother! I was born to die soon;
but Olympian Zeus the Thunderer
owes me some honor for it.

Early on, Theseus' grandfather describes moira as

The finished shape of our fate, the line drawn round it. It is the task the gods allot us, and the share of glory they allow; the limits we must not pass; and our appointed end.

No one can escape his fate, of course. But a king, in accepting his office, acquires a special duty in exchange for his power. As Theseus' grandfather explains,

It is not the sacrifice, whether it comes in youth or age, or the god remits it; it is not the bloodletting that calls down power. It is the consenting, Theseus. The readiness is all. It washes heart and mind from things of no account, and leaves them open to the god.

The Theseus legend as Renault tells it may be unfair to Crete and the Minoan court. It is a sort of PR battle of images, now 3500 years old, and not capable of final resolution. Sir Arthur Evans, based on his excavations at Knossos in the early part of this century, projected a very different image of Cretan society as happy and sensual, consisting of a people who loved nature and peace. Findings since then have pushed the pendulum somewhat back in the other direction.

The truth is not available to us, only the myths and legends, whether ancient or contemporary. Myth is just an early form of literature, and we are free to imagine it as we like, for what we can get out of it. In this case, Renault's version encourages us to admire the young bull dancers for their courage and skill.

We do know that the bull dance was an important ritual performance in Minoan Crete. What little we know of it is derived from various art works depicting it, such a figurines and seals. It is often referred to as "bull leaping", because the performers were skilled acrobats who apparently were able to vault into a standing position on the back of a bull.

As to the real significance of the performance, we have only conjecture. It may have been religious ritual, a popular spectator sport like modern bull fights, or a sacrificial rite imposed on slaves taken as tribute. In Renault's story, it is a mixture of all these.

What does all this have to do with nakedness? From the depictions available to us, the bull dancers did not perform completely naked, but nearly so:

Boys and girls were everywhere; calling and quarrelling and laughing, chasing each other, playing leapfrog, throwing balls, gossiping in twos and threes, a few moping alone; youths and maidens of every color man was made in, white and black and brown and golden; all naked but for their little loin-guards of colored leather, and their beads or jewels.

Many of the young captives forced to perform did not accept their fate gracefully - and these were usually the first to die. Others, however, acquired a definite panache. As Theseus describes one girl,

On the wooden bull she had a perfect style. The nakedness of the Bull Court suited her; though she was thin and had hardly more breast than a boy, her dancer's grace made her look like one of those gold and ivory bull-girls the Cretan jewellers make.

Nakedness, far from being a source of shame, can be a mark of innocent pride. At a climactic moment in the story, nakedness becomes symbolic of both freedom and honor in meeting fate (which have a lot to do with each other). During the chaos after the earthquake that toppled Knossos, as the young bull dancers made their bid for freedom,

A horde of girls rushed in, their arms full of weapons; bows and daggers, quivers and sawn-down spears. In the van, their arms bloodied to the elbows, were Iros in a woman's skirt and scarf, and Thalestris stark naked, her bow and quiver at her back, her hair like black war-smoke streaming behind her. The girls had stripped to their bull-dress to free their limbs for fighting; I suppose in the scrimmage the weak link of her belt had gone. She took no notice, which among Amazons is the modesty of the field.

As mentioned at the beginning, Renault's version of the Theseus/Ariadne myths is not the "official" one. There are various places you can go for that. Here are some of them:

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Last updated: February 17, 1997