In the TV show Arrested Development, the character Tobias Fünke is revealed to have a very dirty secret. He is caught showering, not in the nude, but in … shorts! Jean cut-off shorts, which he indeed wears at all times under his clothing. The show jokingly describes Tobias as part of a clandestine cult of men who always wear denim shorts, deemed “Never Nudes.”
Nudity — and its implicit relationship to clothing — can be perceived in turns as shamefully revealing or sensually erotic in our culture. In the context of the show, the never-nude conceit mocks our concept of nudity as embarrassing by replacing it with something perhaps even more embarrassing — a silly, outdated item of clothing. It is saying that one is essentially “more revealed” wearing this embarrassing clothing than when nude.
Flipping the argument around, it is also possible to be “fully dressed” without any garments on. This point was raised in a study of dress and nudity conducted by scholar Anne Hollander, who proposes that throughout history our understanding of the nude body has always been influenced by understandings of the clothed body. As she puts it, “All nudes in art since modern fashion began are wearing the ghosts of absent clothes — sometimes highly visible ghosts.”
This indeed becomes very apparent when picturing say, an 18th century odalisque in an “invisible” corset or a neoclassical nude with more relaxed posture. In Goya’s series “Nude Maja” and “Clothed Maja,” the artist presents the exact same figure in and out of clothing. Here, the nude body remains “dressed” in silhouette, only exchanging fabric for flesh. Seen like this, nudity is not “natural,” but is continually constructed by dress.
More modernly, photography has frequently been concerned with capturing the nude. As Hollander notes, “Nude photographs taken at different epochs demonstrate this process; they are good examples of vision edited by fashion but posing as objective truth.” An influential architect of the nude image from the last century was photographer Helmut Newton. Newton portrayed the nude female in the shape of the supermodel: stiletto heels lifting towering legs towards a curved derriere, with hands on hips framing major breasts. Newton proclaimed: this is not a pin-up girl, this is a scary powerful woman. She says, “Just because I’m naked doesn’t mean I couldn’t kill you with my little toe.”
This fierce sexuality plays with the edges of androgyny also, a realm that can be construed as ambiguously erotic or just plain confusing. Returning to Hollander’s thesis, Newton’s nude work also corresponded to an androgynous fashion aesthetic developing at the time. This complicates the original thesis because now the nude is not only “clothed,” but clothed in a way that seeks to blur his or her (naked) gender identity.
This same issue came to newsstands last spring on the cover of a cultural journal called Dossier, censored by retailers by covering it in black wrapping. The offending cover featured a photo of ethereal male model Andrej Pejic slipping a white shirt off his back, with his beautiful face tilted down and his slim chest and belly exposed. The photo is arresting, at first reading as a woman removing her blouse, then leaving the eye with no breasts to confirm the gender identification.
So while most issues of Men’s Health feature a proud male chest, Pejic’s was effectively deemed to be a women’s chest in the eyes of the censors and thus something to be hidden. This instance shows how a nude image can be so disturbing as to be censored just because it confuses the usual symbols of dress, nudity, and accompanying eroticism.
Although all of these examples are from the public sphere, they prove a larger point about the everyday private perception of the nude form as something presumed to be natural when it is, in fact, always seen through the distortions of fashion.