Clothes, in historical context

1. In the legend of the Garden of Eden, the original humans, Adam and Eve, were unashamed of their nakedness. Then they ate fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and God cast them out. At some point, either after the fruit or after leaving the garden, they became ashamed of, at minimum, their “private parts”—and thus they covered up. Thus were clothes born, thus did humans come to know something called modesty, and thus was nudity made into sin.

The two most important salvation religions that the world has ever seen, Christianity and Islam, take the story of the Garden of Eden seriously. While the individual faithful, across centuries and vast geographies, have occasionally been anywhere between easygoing about nudity to committed nudists, the most politically important currents in both religions—which is to say, not short-lived heretical movements and libertine rebellions, but the Christianity of kings and popes, the Islam of sultans and scholars, the ideas of religion as promoted by states and elites—have promoted and enforced standards of dress that are quite covered up.

There are other religions, of course, and it's not as though people weren't wearing clothes in, say, Japan circa 1200 (e.g. long before Abrahamic religion or its adherents started making any big local impact). Clothes seem to be a common part of almost all of civilization, which is defined in various ways by different people, but which I will characterize as a society organized around the provision of resources and ruled by bullies, cult leaders, and the interests of people who have inherited generational wealth—all categories that overlap to varying degrees. This was true of ancient Mesopotamia, an era when there were individual cities, sometimes at the centre of empires, the geographic scope of which was limited by mountains, deserts, endless steppes, and the sea. It is true today, too, when this way of living has expanded to almost every part of the planet where humans can live comfortably, plus some. No one is going naked.

Never mind the hype about Europe, by the way. I am not certain that I could think of a non-European city where it would even be conceivable that a subway advert featuring head-on full frontal nudity (of a trans woman, no less!) would ever even make it to the train, but that's what happened in Vienna in 2014. Over in Europe, representations of naked people are more common in public spaces and on primetime TV than they are in North America, where I live, or possibly anywhere else—but that is completely immaterial to the fact that most Europeans still don't go naked (or even near naked) as a matter of course. They wear clothes, sometimes lots of clothes, even when clothes are stifling. When they strip down—for instance, at sandy beaches with access to nice ocean breezes—they mostly adhere to the broadly global norms of beach attire, e.g. they wear (highly bigendered) bathing clothes such as shorts and bikinis.

It's not a safe option to get naked at most of the best, most beautiful, and most accessible beaches throughout Europe, at least not without an army of people who support you and/or get naked themselves. It often isn't legal to do so, either. Even if it is legal, the cops, other local officials, or simply the other beachgoers may not know that, or they may not care. Either possibility may lead to unpleasantness that feels all the more unpleasant when you're naked and physically vulnerable.

This doesn't stop everyone in Europe (or elsewhere) from getting naked, and of course there are lots of (generally still more secluded and inaccessible) nude beaches and such, with some countries (notably Germany) having quite a lot of nudity-optional territory available, at least in comparison to countries that have little to none. But there is a whole complex of laws, culture, and enforcement of norms—again, the stuff of civilization—that stops a lot of people, most of the time, from getting naked, even if that's something they would want to do. Few people are going to ride the Berlin subway or visit a Brighton basketball court without at least one clothed back-up person with a camera following along. It's just not worth the trouble.

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2. In the hot, humid, and largely tropical regions of the world (possibly including Mediterranean Europe), and especially outside of cities and regions exploited by cities, I am led to believe that near nudity as a norm of dress was once much more common. It's hard to know for certain what the situation was at points further back in time, of course. Most people throughout history were illiterate, i.e. they did not leave written records that future scholars could use to learn about how they lived their lives. Many of the tools and other objects they would have crafted for themselves, like clothing, would have been made from materials that would, in most circumstances, degrade over time. Thus, there is a certain amount of guesswork involved in imagining the past, which cannot be separated from the biases of the guessers.

But, let's try to say a few things anyway.

In the historical record of the last 500 to 600 years, there are some descriptions of “naked” people in various parts of the world. These descriptions come, by and large, from others who were involved in efforts to conquer these “naked” people, Christianize them (or occasionally Islamicize them), and occasionally either outright assimilate or exterminate them—or failing all that, who were at least invested in the idea of their own cultural superiority vis-à-vis other groups, as well as partial to the notion that nudity is a sign of cultural inferiority.

In the broad span of human history, I think there really were groups of people who were out-and-out naked and just living their lives until some combination of state agents and/or adherents to a faith of Middle Eastern origin showed up. But I also suspect that out-and-out naked people, almost always without a stitch of clothing on their person (most of the time, anyway), were a very small minority of the Earth's population by circa 1500. Based on documentary evidence I have seen that was produced from the 19th century onward, I think it's fair to say that the “most naked” of the people in Amazonia, Africa, and Southeast Asia who were photographed or videotaped (on a scale of how much of their skin was exposed to air and the camera) were, most of the time, still wearing some amount of clothing and/or ornamentation; they were thus relatively naked but not absolutely naked.

At some point, there is an arbitrary choice to be made in distinguishing “naked” from “near naked”, but given that we are talking about people with other cultural ideas about dress and nudity, I think it's probably accurate to say that, if any of these people had ideas about “nudity” that were more or less analogous to common modern ones (e.g. shame, embarrassment, inappropriateness, vulnerability), these people simply were not naked by their own standards—which I think are the ones that should matter, most of the time

Yet, to the extent that they had most of their skin exposed, most of their ass cheeks exposed, and almost the whole of their front chest exposed, I do consider these people to be effectively naked by the standards of both my own culture and—this is more important—today's global clothing norms on average.

This sort of near nudity, as I will continue calling it, is vanishingly uncommon today, even in the regions of the world where it might make a lot of sense given local climatic conditions. To the extent that it still exists as a norm of dress in some places and among some people, it is under threat from a combination of missionaries, national governments (especially when brazenly conservative and chauvinistic factions are in power or close to power, as is often true or increasingly true in Brazil, Indonesia, and India, for instance), and the myriad other forces that push toward either cultural annihilation and/or cultural change.

At a time when the climate in colder, more temperate zones is literally tropicalizing, e.g. becoming hotter and more humid, there are people in the world like the late John Allen Chau, who want to impose themselves, their Saviour, and (presumably) “more modest clothing” as well upon the inhabitants of places like North Sentinel Island—never mind that the people there were doing just fine already. Never mind, either, the historical experience of Operation Koteka (1977-'78) and like endeavours over the decades (see here, search “koteka”) in western Papua, in which the heretofore mostly forest-dwelling locals were obliged by force to cover up more of their skin, presumably because some chauvinistic Javanese bureaucrats thought they ought to.

Finally mind, neither mind, too, that the globalized clothing industry is an ecological nightmare that every person should be seceding from as much as they possibly can right now, so that it, and the larger edifice of capitalist industry, falls apart as hastily as possible and while there are still humans around who will be able to dance on the ruins.

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3. Throughout the history of civilization—both in the tropics and elsewhere—fancier clothes and large, diverse wardrobes have always corresponded to wealth and high status. They have been used, in fact, as indicators of such status. Occasionally, in feudal societies, there were laws—classified today as “sumptuary”—that aimed to prevent “commoners” from wearing fabrics, colours, and other accoutrements that were associated with more privileged classes of people, even if some of those commoners, in their role as merchants or whatever, would have been able to procure such luxury items for themselves through the market.

The poor in civilization, for their part, seem to have mostly always worn clothing as well. To be sure, without lotions that can protect the skin from the Sun's rays, it is probably not a great idea to be completely nude when doing backbreaking farm labour at the height of noon. Even if there was lotion available in a given society, it may have been expensive and/or time-consuming to procure. Living and/or working in some places might also mean biting insects, sharp blowing sand, intermittent violent conflict, and other hazards. If you were poor but a resident of a city or a market town, your living conditions were often cramped and unhygienic no matter what you did, and being naked in such circumstances, even if ambient weather conditions were permitting, would certainly make you more vulnerable in a dangerous situation: fires, disease, an outbreak of fighting of any variety. In addition, a lack of appropriate clothing might limit one's ability to carry (and sometimes also conceal) useful items from place to place.

And of course, the poor in civilization have never been completely immune to a tendency of emulating and replicating the values of the rich. Poor people aspire to be rich. A number of people always invest significant time and/or resources in projecting a wealthy status (or at least a relatively well-off status) to others. They do this for any number of reasons, not least of which is that they may want to attract partners, and projecting wealth or well-offness is often part of a healthy strategy for that sort of a thing. (All of this is contrary to an idea of simplicity that is important to a lot of nudists, and reflected in the affect of spiritually guided naturism, be it Christian naturism, gay pagan nudism, or whatever else.)

For anarchists today, and throughout history in fact, clothes have been a way of signaling to one another what one is about (be that community activist, insurrecto-cool, or “hello, fellow worker!”); and in this, we aren't really different from other political subcultures, because other people wear t-shirts with slogans on them, too. Anarchist “fashion” and/or anarchists' norms of dress would have looked different in and around a Parisian salon in circa 1899 than it would have done in a punk venue in the United States or Indonesia circa 1999, but similar dynamics exist below the surface. There is a desire to indicate certain affiliations, to indicate that one belongs in a given space, and of course there may also be an effort to have a distinct look that speaks to an important part of a person's identity, which for some people may be their self-conception as an anarchist—hence the need for a circle-A patch (or tattoo) on the shoulder.

An interesting new development is that, today, the principal channel for indicating affiliations and expressing personality to others avant la lettre (i.e. before talking to someone) is the social media account. This account may feature photos of the operator, perhaps wearing clothes or perhaps not, perhaps showing certain parts of the body (the face) or other parts, perhaps showing an illustration of an anthropomorphic fox character, or whatever else. In any case, this manner of signaling to others what one is about is quite different from the dynamic at play when hanging out and getting to know people in a physical space, such as a bar, a student association building, a house party, or a huge gathering. In the vast majority of cases, e.g. with respect to sighted people, a huge part of the first impression someone makes on will be determined by the clothes they are wearing.

Clothes, when they aren't symbolic in and of themselves (the keffiyeh is the go-to example), are often canvases for symbols, indicating adherence to a particular worldview and/or membership in a particular tribe in the most generic sense (and sometimes a particular national project, which is just a tribe on a much larger scale). A major rhetorical focus within naturist discourse, which is typically liberal by default, is that with nudity, all of that shit goes away: class, creed, politics, etc. I don't believe that for a minute, but I am certain that—absent some explicit and/or very specific tattoos or some particularly pointed and controversial hairstyles—nudity generally does succeed in obscuring one's chosen affiliations (although not necessarily any more than, say, a normcore dress aesthetic).

In the current moment, we are seeing a resurgence of nationalist and authoritarian politics (and corresponding apparel, either the Dionysian insanity of Trumpists-qua-Landsknechte or the Apollonian uniformity of police, paramilitaries, and all the quasi-serious wannabes), largely correspondent to many ideas about what “fascism” constitutes. We are also seeing global temperatures soar as a result of the carbonization of the atmosphere and other such things. At the same time, there is sort of a crisis of relevance for anarchism. It's hard to really measure this in a global sense, but it seems that there are fewer partisans, specifically, of anarchism, at least in North America and/or the part of it where I live. I think a lot of this has to do with the end of subculture, which itself has to do with the internet. People are no longer involved in relationships with people with whom they share space—which is to say, embodied space—and with whom, in many complicated ways, they can articulate a shared way of understanding the world, of signaling belonging to a group, of living together, even for a short time. Instead, people are largely involved in relationships on the internet, many of which are one-sided and “parasocial”; they do not share space, which is bounded and specific, but “platforms” that are, at least at the level of user perception, effectively infinite and boundless, such that anyone can go off and spin up their own supposedly cooler Discord server or subreddit or whatever. Eclecticism and idiosyncrasy are thus no longer incidental, the product of uniqueness, but instead often the goal; to have varied interests and diverse sources of inspiration is an indication of the breadth of a person's knowledge and experience.

From this emerges a recuperative monoculture, made up of images from the past, often from other places. A lot of people, including myself, view this as vapid and unfulfilling, and so they look for something more authentic, which more often than not ends up being some kind of sanguinary rightism.

Many people do not understand anything about the real history corresponding to these images from the past—or if they do, they have not thought about those understandings and tried to reach a better understanding through carefully and logically putting different aspects of their knowledge into dialogue with one another. Instead, they just appreciate the image's most shallow aspect, its aesthetic—that is, the recombination of all its apparent characteristics into a singular value whose purpose is to determine how an image, an outfit, a style, a person, is to be categorized.

In images of the past, what are we looking at? Is it a real image of people living their lives, captured more or less candidly, or is it an image that was constructed and staged by someone with an agenda or a vision? Why are people wearing the clothes they are wearing? Where did they get those clothes? What was the history of those clothes—the raw materials that made up those clothes—before anyone ever wore them? What did those people think about clothes in general, either their own or clothes in general? What kind of lives did they live, and how were those lives different from, say, yours or mine?

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4. Clothes originate somewhere between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago. As someone who doesn't know shit about shit when it comes to prehistory, but who is predisposed to confidently saying things about history anyway, I am gonna put my money on more or less 222,222 years ago as the time whenabouts the plot of this episode of Animals. happened in slow motion among a group of humans' ancestors for the first time—or, if you don't want to watch the episode (even though it's really quite good), in which humans first started to wear clothes.

Accepting a certain perspective on history (e.g. Huxley's), humans are descended from ancient primates; we have a common ancestry with other species to primates in the world today, several million years ago. The other living primate species don't wear clothes like we do, and to a species, they are mostly covered in fur—though often with “naked” patches, either without hair or perhaps with very thin, very sparse air.

Modern humans vary quite a bit, but once our clothes are gone, most of us are “naked” (e.g. hairless) almost all over our bodies. Even the hairiest of us—those with facial hair, chest hair, back hair, butt hair, leg hair, the works—still don't approach the furriness of most primates.

Our ancestors hunted game, and often their greatest strength was not any crafted tool they had in their possession (which certainly may have been important), but their superior endurance, e.g. their ability to give chase for a long time. Sprinting, they were perhaps significantly slower than what they were chasing, but they could keep going without completely stopping as a result of overheating. In tropical environments, this corresponded to a decrease in fur over time, which led to a “nakedness”, e.g. a comparable hairlessness, when compared with other primate species. Later, this in turn gave rise to a practical need for clothes when later generations moved into climes where protection from the cold, from the rays of the Sun, and from other elements was important for survival.

An important thing about clothes is that, until very recently in history, they were almost always handcrafted. Clothes were not made in factories and sold for money, which is how things have unfolded since capitalism emerged and took over the world. There were, in some places and some times, craftspeople, often called “tailors” or “cobblers” or whatever, who made clothes of a certain type if people could pay up in some useful currency. But for most people throughout history, who have mostly been poor, clothes were made by people who knew how to do such things, who were typically part of a person's family or community. This was often “women's work” in patriarchal societies, but that's not the point. What's important is that this is now rare; these skills have largely been lost in societies affected by mass consumerism. There may be small numbers of people, often enthusiasts and hobbyists, who still mend clothing, stitch quilts, and so on—and often such people have been found adjacent to anarchists, as punks—or who are at a distance from the reach of the global clothing industry (again, places like North Sentinel Island). Most people, however, and even the very poorest in any given society, wear clothes that were made in a dedicated facility far away in order to turn a profit for a given company's shareholders.

Today, incomprehensible quantities of garments are produced; the scale of the industry is beyond fathoming. Many people own many, many more garments than they could ever possibly use. Lots of people in affluent societies own clothes that they never wear. It is difficult, and usually effectively criminal, to not own any clothes, so the absolutely destitute usually still own something, though their clothes tend to wear out more quickly than would be the case if they didn't live on the streets.

Clothes that no one wants are gathered en masse, and flow through the international development charity racket to places in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, undercutting local garment industries, causing unemployment, and homogenizing global culture such that the whole world wears t-shirts and other types of “Western clothing” now.

Clothes are commodities, which is to say, all the history of violence that goes into their manufacture is obscured to the people who encounter them at the point of purchase or afterwards. Most people don't know how bad it all is (all the hell of production), or they don't dwell on it much. Others do, and yet they buy clothes anyway, at least in part because they do not really see any viable alternative to doing so. They don't have the skills, or the time, or the community, to make—or otherwise source—the clothes they need, when they need them. If they are even interested in living a life in which they are less alienated from the production of the things they use, clothes may, nevertheless, not be a major priority for where they want to start with things. People more often think about their food first.

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5. I think clothes are pretty cool, personally. Like, specific items of clothing that I own and that I like, as well as certain types of clothing in general, as well as the entire concept of clothing. It is all swell to me.

But I do not like how clothes are in this society—which is to say, how they are both pretty much mandatory in all social settings everywhere, as well as how, like lots of other things, they are generally ecologically destructive. But in a different kind of society, things could be kind of different.

I am, incidentally, entirely unsentimental about nudity in public as such. I personally believe that there should be no laws against it, and no involvement of police in resolving disputes about such things (because I suspect there would remain disputes about the appropriateness of nudity in certain settings, among certain people who have particular beliefs about clothes and such, etc.), but I would be pretty happy with a new norm that allowed for looser clothing (e.g. loincloths, sarongs, dresses—fuck gender by the way), more easygoing attitudes around exposed skin (e.g. maybe a little leeway to, say, change clothes in public without having to do a towel dance or squat behind a shrub or whatever), and a broad dismantling of the global clothing industry (and other industries, for instance those that encourage self-doubt and anxiety with respect to personal appearance, the body, et al.). Maybe that's reformist of me, but a future in which the norm is that everyone is actually naked more or less all of the time and/or as much as physically possible is just not some horizon I think is worth aiming at.

I don't care what everyone does. What I want is for everyone to have better options, including the option to be naked—but I don't care how many people exercise that option for themselves.

That being said, I personally do like getting and being completely naked—and I figure that nudity could be a larger part of anarchist collectivity, prefiguration, and direct action than it is currently.

Most projects—and really, all projects, when you think about it—require space. Nudity is, almost by definition, vulnerability, and if people are able to feel actually comfortable when naked in a space, that is an indication that they feel pretty safe in that space, which is perhaps an indication that something is working. There is a certain degree of trust that nothing bad and/or unpleasant and/or undealwithable is gonna happen as a result of a condition of nudity (or something worse than normal is going to happen, if conditions are just more generally difficult for a person for any number of reasons).

Besides, it is sometimes practical to be more vulnerable, with respect to certain hazards, if that means being more capable and prepared with respect to some other problem (for instance, how to conserve hot water, which may be scarce)—or perhaps simply more physically comfortable. We have to trust, of course, that people won't run off with our clothes (or the things in our clothes' pockets); we would need to trust that, even should the worst thing happen (e.g. the intervention of an external enemy, taking advantage of vulnerability), people would have each others' backs; we would need to trust that nothing uncomfortable (more often than not, meaning nothing sexual) would happen as a result of people being naked.

This sort of thing isn't impossible, even in a world where clothes are integral to civilization writ large and civilization is still apparently triumphant. To whatever extent a spirited culture of nudism among anarchists would allow us to free up time, resources, and mental energy that might otherwise be occupied with useless and/or joylous thoughts, or that such a culture would allow anarchists to imagine and build a collective infrastructure of hygiene that would be vastly superior to the shitty small bathrooms that many of us are stuck with—or if such a culture could decrease our reliance, even in a very small way, upon the destructive and doomed economy to which the global clothing industry is an integral party—then, I believe, that would be to the good.

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