Clothes, in historical context

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 (aka just “civ” in green anarchist parlance), which is defined in various ways by different people, but which I will characterize as a societies 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 in ancient Mesopotamia, at the point in time when there were individual cities, sometimes at the centre of empires, but whose geographic scope was limited by mountains, deserts, endless steppes, and the sea. And it is true today, in the moment that civilization 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, even in European countries, but even if it is legal, cops, other local officials, or simply other beachgoers may not know that or they may not care. This in itself doesn't stop everyone from getting naked, of course, but it stops most people, including a lot of anarchists who simply aren't interested in getting into any kind of fight over nudity and/or while naked themselves.

In the hot, humid, and largely tropical regions of the world, 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. Many clothes were made by illiterate people, and made from biodegradable materials. There are some descriptions of “naked” people provided by others who were, by and large, either involved in efforts to conquer them, Christianize them (or occasionally Islamicize them), and occasionally either outright assimilate or exterminate them, or failing all that, at least invested in the idea of their own cultural superiority over these people and partial to the notion that nudity was a sign of inferiority. Suffice it to say, however, that I think – in the broad span of human history – there really were 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 suspect out-and-out naked people were a small minority, too. 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.

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 most of their skin was exposed, most of their ass cheeks were exposed, and almost the whole front chest was exposed, then I would consider those people, perhaps not absolutely naked, but certainly more naked than would be the global norm today.

This sort of near nudity, even in the regions of the world where it might make a lot of sense given local conditions, is vanishingly uncommon today. 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 (e.g. 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 North Sentinel Island. Never mind that the people were doing just fine already, and never mind the historical experience of Operation Koteka in western Papua, in which the heretofore mostly forest-dwelling locals were obliged by force to wear clothing (they didn't know that they had to wash clothing, and probably weren't informed of that fact in their own languages, so many of them got sores and rashes all over their bodies). Never mind 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.

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 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, if the weather was 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 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 signalling 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 are beneath 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 same people may be their self-conception as an anarchist. Something that is interesting, today, is that the principal channel for indicating affiliations and expressing personality to others avant la lettre (i.e. before talking to someone) is the social media accounts, which may indeed feature photos of a person (probably wearing clothes, most of the time); this is a very different dynamic than hanging out in a physical space, like a bar or a student association building or wherever, and signalling these things to others first through the medium of clothing.

Clothes, when they aren't symbolic in and of themselves, 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 in 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 signalling 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 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 of 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?

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. Humans are descended from ancient primates, a common ancestor that we share, I have come to learn, with other primates in the world today. Those other primates don't wear clothes, 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 on the whole, most of us are “naked” almost everywhere, and even the hairiest of us – chest hair, back hair, butt hair, leg hair, the whole fucking works – don't approach the furriness of most primates. Our ancestors hunted game, and often their greatest advantage was not any tool, but their superior endurance, their ability to run for a long time, perhaps significantly slower than what they were chasing, but without stopping and without overheating, which would often take advantage of their significantly furrier relatives. In tropical environments, this could have very well corresponded to a decrease in fur, which necessitated clothes (often made from the furs of local game) once humans and/or their ancestors expanded into climes where protection from the cold was important, as well as deserts where there was absolutely no respite from the Sun.

An important quality 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 kind, for a certain project (projecting wealth and status, facilitating a particular sort of professional undertaking, etc.), if people could pay up in some useful currency. But for most people throughout history, who have been poor, clothes were made by people who knew how to do such a thing, who were part of a person's family or community. This has often been “women's work” in patriarchal societies. The point is, though, that this is now rare. There are patches of people 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 global clothing industry (again, places like North Sentinel Island), but generally speaking, most people, even the very poor, wear clothes that were made somewhere else with the intention of turning a profit.

Today, many garments are produced. The scale of the industry is probably quite difficult to fathom. Many people own many more garments than they could ever possibly use. Lots of people in affluent societies own clothes that they never wear. It is difficult to not own any clothes, so the absolutely destitute usually still own something, which tends to be worn out more quickly than would be the case if they didn't live on the streets. Clothes that no one wants feed into the international development charity racket, flooding places in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere to the point that local garment industries will always be undercut, which is why the whole world wears t-shirts and other types of “Western clothing” now. The products that are sold and/or worn in places 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), but lots of people do, and yet they buy clothes anyway, at least in part because they do not really see any alternative way of doing things as viable. They don't have the skills, or the time, or the community, to make clothes. If they are even interested in living a less alienated life, clothes may not be a major priority for where they want to start with things.

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. 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 inappropriateness 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 clothing (e.g. maybe a little leeway to, say, change clothes without having to do a towel dance or squat behind a shrub or whatever), and a broad dismantling of the global clothing industry (and others 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 revolutionary horizon in which the norm is that everyone is actually naked when unperturbed by, say, a cold snap, is just not that interesting to me.

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

I don't care to get into specifics of what that could look like, but 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 able 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, in mixed company, 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, or allow us to construct a collective infrastructure of hygiene that would be superior to the shitty small bathrooms that many of us are stuck with – or even just decrease our reliance, even in a very small way, upon the destructive and doomed economy to which the global clothing industry is party – that, I believe, would be to the good.