Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing around the World

By Mineke Schipper

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 272

Price: Rs 499

Despite its prominence in subsequent academic writing, the widely diverging ideas of “naked” or “nude” remain perhaps the most elusive. I feel the need to single quote the two unpleasant Ns, for throughout history and cultures, they have implied a lack of decency and submissiveness for an uncovered head, as much as they have tacitly symbolised an audacious show of bare legs or arms or breasts—parts that comprise the very sacred inches on the human skin. These Ns are tricky because their related vocabulary lies buried under a thick blanket of shame. A woman in a bikini in a television commercial is labelled nude, so is the girl who abandons the niqab, and is believed to have committed blasphemy. The lines of what it means to be dressed are blurry. Where do you even start a social debate from? 1.6 million years ago, when the first upright walking human lived with no need or desire for clothes? Or today, where scarcely covered bodies dominate our television screens and Instagrams in all their naked glory, and we can’t decide if we are at ease, or at shame for not switching it off?

As much as the idea of naked eludes (most of) us, Mineke Schipper’s Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World is not something one would run to lay their hands on. But once you start, you would be glad that you, if just disapprovingly, picked it up. Our unruly fixation with the bodily exposure and its concealment has held (most of) us from talking freely on the issue. Schipper’s engaging narrative, replete with interesting anecdotes and cultural facts, would do just the same. It would talk. And you would listen. And the idea would not be elusive anymore.

Schipper successfully plants, not one, not two, but a litany of perspectives on the whats, hows, and whys of the act of dressing.  In a globalised world, our appearances heavily and incredibly decide our identities. An eloquently dressed woman immediately commands respect, and a “scantily” dressed woman is thought to be bringing shame on the collective honour of her society. Yet, it is a female body in scanty underwear which lies in suggestive poses, that is abundantly exploited to “make people buy things that have nothing to do with their revealed nakedness”. Schipper writes: “Almost every product is being sold with sex, from soap to soup to Madonna. Even the news and weather are being promoted with sex.” While the whole of humanity lies caught up in the complicated moral web of clothing rules, the naked body continues to preoccupy people. To shame or not to shame is the question that hovers over our naked consciences, with answers deeply rooted in our societal behavior, mainly in our digression from these norms. It is when we take a detour from what we have been prescribed to do and believe, is when we are rejected, ridiculed or disapproved of. In such a case, it would not be wrong to say that our contemporary interpretations have left us bigoted and baffled. Schipper addresses the bafflement, one historical/ cultural edict at a time. She verbosely answers the whats and the hows of the act of dressing; the whys still, however, remain too complicated to be justified with anything less than what Schipper has produced.

Schipper successfully plants, not one, not two, but a litany of perspectives on the whats, hows, and whys of the act of dressing.  In a globalised world, our appearances heavily and incredibly decide our identities.

Literature and the Internet provide numerous examples of people who undress—out of despair, out of loneliness, or as a protest to injustices they feel have been done to them. Then, there are people, especially women, who see their naked bodies as making a political statement against frameworks that keep the female body imprisoned. It is an act of liberation. Nakedness, in all its forms, is a gesture of defiance. It is a tool at the protestor’s disposal, the last line of defence that is probably accessible to him. His body is the metaphor for oppression, and his show of nakedness an assertion of power—however little it is. Here, one is reminded of Michel Foucault’s concept of “biopower”—a dominant system of social control through self-discipline, which equates power to control of the body. The most recognisable example of protest in recent times was that against Donald Trump—a naked demonstration by hundreds against Trump’s derisive attitude towards “imperfect bodies”. It is astonishing how the protestors felt the most powerful when they bared it all. A naked body is believed to create fear and alarm, and most significantly, gestures a shift in the attitude from compliance to defiance. In another example, Schipper talks about a naked protest action by pious Muslims in 2012 against an American anti-Muslim YouTube film, Innocence of Muslims. The protesters were male students in the Philippines, and the protest was designed to support their government’s efforts to have the film removed from the Internet.

Schipper further writes, “We have become so used to covering up that nakedness has become a deviation… This is exactly why uncovering, from a glimpse of flesh to the most blatant naked body protests, continues to draw unabated attention from state authorities, religious leaders and the dressed masses. In the meantime, the rules for the naked and covered skin, and the protests for and against, keep the world moving in a bewildering Perpetuum mobile over the centuries and across boundaries.”

Mineke Schipper’s take on the covering of the body is incredibly nuanced and neutral. She talks about religious practices through the ages from across the corners of the world, and notably refrains from even mildly bashing any religion or culture. There is too much of history to her detailed prose, yet the reader never feels impeded by its weight; Schipper balances it out with her remarkable storytelling. The novel has one sit up and look at the human body, irrespective of its gender, shape or size, beyond the usual erotic, or the caustic gaze. It is a timely and a highly influential book.

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