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Clothing to a Nudist
Embracing the Language of Dress in the Nudist Movement
In 2021, Netflix released a documentary mini-series called Worn Stories in which various stories of life, family, love, nostalgia, rebellion, pain, joy, and artistry are relayed through the subjects' relationship with clothing and dress. A notable entry to the series was the very first episode titled "Community" which primarily revolved around a few key stories: One was of a warm and cheerful Korean woman named Mrs. Park, her yellow sweater, and her life in Queens, New York, dancing in a seniors' dance ensemble; another was about the symbolism of the perfect white dress for a funeral procession-cum-community celebration in Harlem, New York, an outpouring of love and warmth around an integral member of the community; and the other was about the shared community and connection of the nudists who spend their time at Cypress Cove Nudist Resort in Kissimmee, Florida. Much to the delight and perhaps even confusion of real-life nudists, we had been included within a kaleidoscope of stories about the things we all wear, about the communities we belong to, about the clothing choices that frame our lives and memories and relationships. You might be asking yourself, as many nudists probably did when Worn Stories premiered, what is clothing to a nudist? In the case of the Cypress Cove nudists, of course, it was about the clothing they don't wear, and therein lies the connecting tissue. While nudists are typically keen to remind the world that clothing does not define us, we have also often defined ourselves by that exact relationship to clothing. We cannot avoid our relationship to clothing, and so we may as well embrace it... and possibly use it.
"... those who vehemently reject clothes tend to think more deeply about dress than most, at least in relation to its shortcomings. In so doing... nudist practitioners have produced detailed, distinctive, and sometimes sophisticated understandings of fashion and its discontent...."
– Dr. Annebella Pollen
The question of clothing and dress is an interesting one for nudists and is a relationship far more complex than can be adequately addressed here. In all of our endless blathering about society's prudishness and the government's silly laws and our nosy neighbors who need to mind their own business, one talking point that occasionally appears within nudist circles is the idea of nudity as a form of free speech that should be protected by law. It's a nice concept, a potential "get out of jail free" card for nudists if we could actually convince the world of that perspective. Success with this argument, however, has been inconsistent at best. At the federal level, nudity is neither explicitly criminal nor is it protected: According to the United States Supreme Court, state of dress is not covered by the First Amendment, so actual legality and criminality vary by state, county, and city across the country, and can even differ in private vs public spaces. It is nonetheless a concept that is fascinating to ponder and one that has been occupying a good portion of my thoughts lately, not because I feel I will be able to change the world's opinion on the matter, but because I think nudists have a lot to learn from fashion, from clothing as speech, and from the power of dress. This power already resides within our legacy as nudists and is perhaps also the key to our path forward.
I can already hear the protestations from the nudist reader through my laptop screen. I hear shouts of Nudists don't define ourselves by our relation to clothing! I hear notes of Nudists need to distance ourselves from clothing, not embrace it! Or perhaps, We fought hard against obscenity laws to get where we are, we don't need to look to fashion to move forward! And to all of that I say, don’t throw the clothing out with the Comstock Laws, or, in other words, let's not discard the lessons of power and rebellion and community that dress has to offer just because we're committed to opposing the oppression that clothing has been historically forced to administer. We don't have to burn all of our clothes to believe in a world that has a healthier acceptance of the human body. We don't have to reject history to believe in a better future. Clothing has indeed been a factor in persecution, control, racism and anti-Indigeneity, sexism, and forced adherence to ideas of gender and morality and purity. Yet so has nudity been used in horrific ways to humiliate, dehumanize, violate, and exert control over others throughout history. It's worth noting here that it was not the clothing or the nudity doing that oppressive work, it was people weaponizing clothing and nudity to harm or control others. Just as clothing has been used as a tool of oppression, however, it has also been used as a powerful tool in combating oppression, of rebelling against tradition, of fighting for change, of uniting people around an identity, of self expression, or even of just celebrating beauty and form.
This past year, I started commuting to the office again more regularly and, in the process, I've been rediscovering the old podcasts that I used to enjoy on my pre-pandemic drive to work... and have found some new ones as well. One of the podcasts that came up in my "You Might Like" section recently is called Articles of Interest, a spinoff of the popular podcast 99% Invisible focused entirely on the clothing we wear, its history, its social implications, its craftsmanship and artistry, and the impact of all of those factors on the way we dress today and on both niche and shared culture. Each episode is dedicated to a different worn article: Hawaiian shirts, jeans, perfume, etc. I thought, sure, let's give it a listen. I skipped straight to season 3 of the podcast, a season which broke the mold of the previous two seasons and instead spent the entire 7-episode arc exploring every aspect of "Ivy" style. That is, it was dedicated to the reverberating impact of mid-century American Ivy League university campus attire. Think polo shirts, collegiate sweaters, button-downs, khaki pants, madras shorts, and relaxed blazers. This style, while ubiquitous and ordinary to us today, could have been described as quite rebellious and unorthodox at the time, considering the staunch and inaccessible clothing trends of the day, and it changed not only the way that Americans dressed, but the way the whole world dressed.
As I listened to episode after episode, I saw parallels between Ivy style and the American nudist movement, especially in the ways that nudists look back on mid-century nudism with much the same reverence, nostalgia, and admiration that American clothiers and consumers look back on the clothing choices of American college students in the late 1950's and early 1960's. That time period remains very much the model around which nudists root our understanding of the nudist movement, despite the movement having begun decades earlier. The 1950's and 1960's in particular were marked by social change, visibility, and intentional style and marketing for nudists. It struck me that much in the same way that the definitive encyclopedia of Ivy style, a 1965 Japanese fashion photography book titled Take Ivy, was largely manipulated and manufactured to sell clothing styles that American students were already ceasing to wear to young people in Japan, the American nudist magazines of the mid-twentieth century were also often manufactured, posed, curated, and largely not representative of actual members of the nudist community. Nudists, it would seem, are no strangers to using aesthetics to sell an idea. It makes sense then that mid-century nudists fought so hard for so long to ensure that they could mail their magazines through the United States Postal Service: They knew that if people could see the nudist idea framed through idealized bodies in idyllic locations and idol-like poses, readers would be drawn irresistibly to the nudist philosophy, to nudist clubs and parks, to join a movement. Despite this similar advertising tactic, early nudists were only ever able to quietly shirk societal norms from the sidelines, from behind the walls of their private clubs. Meanwhile, other much more visible groups challenged oppression through their combined speech, public gatherings, and, of course, their dress, making bold statements, shunning tradition, and uniting people with the words they spoke and the clothing they wore: The Civil Rights movement famously adopted Ivy style as a way to legitimize and garner respect for their cause; The Black Panthers dressed for power and resistance and the subversion of respectability politics; and Punk style of the 1970's and 1980's literally shredded established fashion rules and safety-pinned them back together in defiance of order and authority.
Acts of defiance and rebellion in response to social oppression and legal persecution have been ever-present throughout modern history, and the nudist movement is as much a part of that history as any other previous or concurrent social movement. We don’t need to look back very far to recall laws banning cross dressing during the time of the Stonewall Riots, laws restricting how short a woman’s bathing suit could be on America’s beaches, laws criminalizing toplessness and nudity in cities across the United States. These same issues and anxieties around dress continue today as we see social media bans on depictions and even discussions of nudity, school dress codes that shame girls and blame them for boys' behavior, and new laws being proposed to outlaw drag performances and “dressing as the opposite gender” in states like Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee. In the context of an age-old struggle against social oppression, we cannot separate the nudist movement from these other struggles for self-expression, self-determination, equality, and freedom of dress. The nudist fight to destigmatize the human body is no more or less valid than, say, the transgender fight to live life as their authentic selves, the women's fight to feel free and safe in their bodies regardless of how they dress, or the artists' fight to break social rules and expose inequalities and tell human stories. Nudism is, at its core, still a fight for expanded freedom of dress.
At the same time as I've been listening to Articles of Interest, I've also been fascinated with the writings of two prominent voices on Twitter who write in depth about themes of craftsmanship, design, taste, sustainability, heritage, and quality of fashion and clothing: Derek Guy (@dieworkwear) of the blog Die, Workwear, and Cora Harrington (@lingerie_addict) of the website The Lingerie Addict. As I read their well-researched and thoughtful posts about the clothes we wear, I'm learning the value and history and meaning and language of different silhouettes, fabrics, constructions, and fits. Yes, I said language. If there is one big-picture takeaway to be had from following these two clothing connoisseurs, it's that clothing itself is an intricate and complex language, it's ever-evolving and nuanced and capable of sending a powerful message, presenting a powerful idea. Even if most of the clothing in our lives is mundane and banal and we put very little thought into it, it doesn't mean it's any less language. Life is also full of all sorts of mundane and banal words that get us through the day, routine conversations and fast food orders and greetings and goodbyes. Through this lens, if we consider that clothing itself is language, then dress is speech, is poetry, is conversation, is storytelling, is song. And if clothing is language and dress is speech, then what is nudity and what does it say? What can it say? What is it allowed to say?
Within the nudist community, we can be a little heavy-handed in our rebuke of clothing as restrictive, as representative of an oppressive force or of an obsession with adhering to social norms and beauty standards and laws of morality, so it's no wonder we often gloss over its potential force for change or liberation. Identifying the negative aspects of clothing and pointing them out so starkly is something of a nudist pastime. In her article titled, "Utopian Bodies and Anti-fashion Futures: The Dress Theories and Practices of English Interwar Nudists," historian Annebella Pollen writes of nudists, "... those who vehemently reject clothes tend to think more deeply about dress than most, at least in relation to its shortcomings. In so doing... nudist practitioners have produced detailed, distinctive, and sometimes sophisticated understandings of fashion and its discontent...." I wonder, however, if nudists may find more success in pursuing our cause by centering our conversations on that freedom of dress, rather than freedom from dress, and the ways that humans throughout history have harnessed clothing and dress to shape the world around us. We may garner more support for our own freedom of dress by calling attention to the importance of all freedom of dress in self-determination, by demonstrating a long human history of expression and social change linked to dress, by denouncing the unequal standards of which messages are and are not allowed to be shared through dress. It's clear that certain ideas, certain challenges to the norm, certain protestations and philosophies are not allowed to be spoken in this language of dress and nudists are justified in feeling frustrated that certain speech, our speech, is limited, restricted to specific times or dates or spaces, restricted to certain platforms and channels, that nudists cannot benefit from the use of dress as speech in the ways that others can.
It's true that nudity as speech has often been highly restricted, but it has still had a place in history and continues to have one today, to varying degrees of public awareness and visibility. In Nudism in a Cold Climate, Annebella Pollen describes the rise of nudism in the early twentieth century within the context of a Britain in flux, alongside other movements such as the Men's Dress Reform Party, a misogynist and eugenics-rooted movement that pushed for an overhaul of the ways men were allowed to dress and ornament themselves, seemingly following in the footsteps of—and jealously mocking the feminist advances of—the Victorian dress reform movement which challenged the demands of nineteenth-century women's fashion. There was a direct connection between the nudist movement in Britain and general changes in attitudes toward gender and dress and class. Similarly, in the United States in the 1960's and 1970's, a burgeoning free beach movement coincided perfectly with the free love movement, celebrating love, sexuality, and body autonomy. These cries for increased liberation of the body were not at odds with one another but were very much part of the same rebellion against stiflingly oppressive norms. More recently, we experience nudity as speech in the form of World Naked Bike Rides, positioned to decry our reliance on fossil fuels and promote sustainability, while concurrent conversations are taking place about the damaging effects of fast fashion, unhealthy beauty standards, and freedom of gender expression. There is, in this current moment of change, a connective tissue between these issues and a rejection, perhaps, of the toll that our modern world and its expectations are taking on us all.
With that in mind, I cannot help but believe that the nudist movement would benefit from recognizing the power that dress (or undress, in our case) has to make change, to rebel, to unify, to protest as described in Articles of Interest and the writings of Pollen, and also to build community, to celebrate, and to enjoy the small things in life as documented in Worn Stories. We would do well to recognize that the fight to speak through our nudity shares a common cause with movements and marginalized groups fighting to speak through their dress, that our interests are much more aligned than not. And we would do well to determine exactly what it is we are trying to say with our nudity that cannot be said otherwise, what it is that nudity and a community built around challenging mandatory dress is saying to the world, and how we can use nudity and our community to improve the world for more than just ourselves. We can dream of a world in which nudity is a protected—or even just tolerated—form of speech all we want, but if we don't actually know what it is we are saying, if we cannot articulate the power struggle that we are facing, then I'm not sure we will get there. I do think, however, that we can look to our past and present, and to the past and present of other movements that have used dress to reinforce their message and further their cause, to remind ourselves what we are trying to say: That perhaps life is not so serious after all, that our nudity reminds us of our humanity and fragility, that nudity demonstrates a demand for equality, for freedom of bodily expression, for an embrace of our natural selves and the natural world, for community and connection over division, for accepting bodies of all types and sizes and genders and abilities. These are the songs that a nude body can sing, the poetry that the nude body can write.