Philip Carr-Gomm begins his A Brief History of Nakedness, a kooky survey of the clothing-free, with a rather presumptuous invitation: “Stop reading and start taking off your clothes.” In this fitfully engaging study, he depicts nakedness as liberating, sensuous, and spiritual. But unless you have had a Road to Damascus moment (in Carr-Gomm’s case, it was a road to Sussex) leading you to the sweaty embrace of naturism, you will likely peruse this book with your shirt and shorts in place. (Those whose air conditioning has broken down calamitously may find themselves more swayed.)
Carr-Gomm had his nude conversion experience while traveling to an ancient druid site, an unsurprising pastime for the author of Druid Mysteries, Druidcraft, The Druid Way, and various related tomes. As that résumé suggests, druids feature rather prominently in this book, alongside Wiccans and Indian sages. In the early chapters, he attempts to find a syncretic basis for nakedness among various religious traditions, but his readings are shallow and selective. He’s as likely to quote Luscious Jackson as the Bible, and to subject both sources to rather feeble critical probing.
Once it moves on from the mystical, the book gains in interest, tackling nude rugby, nude surfing, nude dancing, nude singing, nude protest, nude weddings, etc. The chapters are organized around loose thematic headings (nakedness in politics, nakedness in art), and what they lack in scholarly rigor, they make up for in party-ready trivia. Robert S. McNamara enjoyed skinny-dipping? Do tell!
The book’s strength lies not in its ability to theorize or offer coherent argument. For example, Carr-Gomm variously attributes the spike in nudity over the past 50 years to Freud, sunbathing, birth control, as well as “the rise of feminism, modernism, and secularism.” (Why not add Daffy Duck, Bettie Page, and disposable razors?) Yet he does make at least one robust case for its continuance: Accompanying the prose are more than 100 illustrations—several quite prurient. So let nakedness persist! It makes for some sensational snapshots.