“Not so much as a loin-cloth”

The World Naked bike ride comes to Cambridge for the third time on Saturday and this prompted me to think about how differing attitudes to nudity across Europe would be reflected in the University Library’s collections. Further research revealed that our holdings are reasonably strong in English, French and German but almost non-existent in other languages. I think this in itself is an indication of the places where naturist movements have been more prevalent or of more interest. Indeed it was Germany and France that led the way in the early 20th century with organised nudist groups.

In Germany, naturism is still referred to as FKK, short for Freikörperkultur, a movement led by Adolf Koch during the 1920s and 1930s. Nacktheit und Kultur: Adolf Koch und die proletarische Freikörperkultur (C207.c.1308) by Andrey Georgieff and Freikörperkultur und Lebenswelt: Studien zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte der Freikörperkultur in Deutschland (416.d.99.13) tell more of this story. For an English language analysis see Naked Germany: health, race and the nation (570:35.c.200.52) by Chad Ross. During the East German regime FKK was particularly popular, perhaps as a way of displaying individuality in a somewhat restrictive State, and differences between the former East and West are still noticeable today.

To find out more about the history of nudism in France see Histoire du naturisme en France depuis le siècle des Lumières (416.c.200.135) by Sylvain Villaret and Histoire du naturisme: le mythe du retour à la nature (C206.c.2239) by Arnaud Baubérot.

In the English-speaking world the fascination took hold at the time the FKK movement was getting going, and we have a number of books which make for interesting reading 80 or so years later. The words “naked”, “nude” or “naturist” are all in common usage these days but one obsolete term is gymnosophy.  This was Maurice Parmelee’s preferred word in his 1929 work Nudity in modern life: the new gymnosophy (S247.c.92.1) He had personal experience of the German movement and wrote at great length on the topic.

The future of nakedness (1929) by John Langdon-Davies (9230.d.65) is a short idealistic essay. An American couple, Frances and Mason Merrill, were inspired by Langdon-Davies’ book to take an interest in nudism and visited Europe to experience it first-hand. Among the nudists (1931) (S247.c.93.1) is their very personal account of time spent with nudist groups in Germany and France. It also contains an interesting section on the philosophy of nudism.

Endpaper of S247.d.93.2

On going naked (first published USA 1932, UL copy published in Britain 1933) by Jan Gay (S247.d.93.2) describes from personal experience naturism in Germany, France and Scandinavia and other countries in brief. In her introduction she says: “If in the next few years there is a wide swing toward freedom to go naked, this record may serve as reference to future students who sit cross-legged in the research libraries wearing not so much as a loin-cloth. But the dank coldness of libraries, as well as most indoor temperatures, is one of the important factors which will deter nakedness from reaching such proportions as to put couturiers and shirtmakers completely out of business”

Title page and illustration of 1931.7.1447

Gay refers to Barely Proper by Tom Cushing (1931.7.1447), a one-act satire featuring Derek, a British student who discovers his German fiancée’s family are nudists when he visits them. Subtitled An Unplayable play, the first known performance was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not until 1970.

 Other books supportive of the idea of naturism include:

  • Nudism in England (1933) by Rev. C.E. Norwood (9230.d.153) (Appendix gives list of societies including the Gymnic Association of Great Britain and the National sun and air association)
  •  The common sense of nudism, including a survey of sun-bathing and “light treatments” (1934) by the interesting and versatile George Ryley Scott  (S247.d.93.3)
  • Sensible sun-bathing (1935) by I. O. Evans (9230.d.205)  where sun-bathing is used as a euphemism for nudism.

The last book illustrates how times have changed – the appendix features lists compiled by the Men’s Dress Reform Party of seaside resorts allowing men to wear trunks and those where “regulation” bathing costumes were still insisted upon.

Another advocate of nudism in the 1930s was William Welby who wrote several books. The Library’s copy of his first, Naked and unashamed (1934) has been missing since 1945. This was followed in 1935 by The naked truth about nudism (S247.c.93.5) and two years later with “It’s only natural”: the philosophy of nudism (S247.c.93.6) which opens thus: “many people still seem to think that the practice of Nudism is confined to cranks and faddists.” It seems to me that there has been little change in the intervening years despite liberalisation of attitudes in other areas.

The Library still subscribes to H & E naturist, originally called Health and Efficiency (L328:8.b.12), the magazine most associated with naturism in this country. It is locked away even from the fetching staff, presumably because in an earlier time it was deemed to be pornographic and this decision has never been reviewed. We hold copies dating back to 1921 when its focus was certainly not nudity. The first issue received was accompanied by this letter which refers in turn to the “objects” listed in the other image.

Issues from the 1920s covered wide-ranging topics including fitness, cancer cures, indigestion, better sleep and birth control. By 1932 the focus was shifting towards nudism as these three consecutive front covers demonstrate.

By 1935 it was describing itself as the “national sunbathing magazine” and by 1940 “the world’s leading naturist journal” with the covers dominated by images of women, usually but not always naked.

More recently, Philip Carr-Gomm’s 2010 book A brief history of nakedness (S950.c.201.5) is a well-illustrated and readable book, covering nudity in popular culture as well as in religion and politics. He has also written a short timeline of nudity and naturism, available here.

Katharine Dicks

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