The dress code

Poorna Swami | Updated on January 08, 2018
Bare facts: Showing cleavage might be offensive in one culture, while in another it could be the show of hands and feet.

Bare facts: Showing cleavage might be offensive in one culture, while in another it could be the show of hands and feet.   -  Reuters

Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World; Mineke Schipper; Non-fiction; Speaking Tiger; ₹450

Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World; Mineke Schipper; Non-fiction; Speaking Tiger; ₹450

If it is the feet in one, exposed shoulders are offensive in another — Naked or Covered takes stock of the varying norms of propriety and ways of viewing the naked body across cultures

To be naked is to be exposed — Mineke Schipper turns on its head this universal assumption in Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World. “People hold widely diverging ideas about ‘naked’,” Schipper writes, “An outfit appreciated by one person can be experienced as shocking by his neighbour”. And it’s true — nakedness appears less to be a state of exposure, for what counts as exposure and covering up are defined in numerous ways. Showing cleavage might be offensive in one culture, while in another it could be the show of hands and feet.

Schipper unpacks various ways of seeing and being looked at, to offer a sweeping picture of how differently people in cultures around the world view the naked body. Part-historian, part-anthropologist, Schipper creates a well-researched and anecdotal account. From the history of loincloths, to the enforcing and banning of burqas, to Hassidic headgear and Facebook censorship, Schipper covers eras and continents with ease. She treats the body — robed and disrobed — as an archaeological site, layered with half-forgotten stories and ciphers to read contemporary politics of choice, gender equality, and censorship. “A covered body is no guarantee against immodesty,” she reminds us, challenging the moral valencies attached to differing degrees of bodily exposure. Lack of clothing can, at times, be more acceptable than being clothed — the demand on men to enter bare-chested in certain Hindu temples, or the idealised, bare athletic body of the Greek tradition.

One might assume that in cultures which subscribe to the Semitic religions, covering the body became the norm as remedy to the sins of Adam and Eve. The epochs after their “fall into shame” point to a steady demarcation between bodily exposure and chastity, bodily knowledge and lustful indulgence. But Schipper suggests that religious and moral thrusts to enforce dress codes do not necessarily diminish excitement and desire. Rather, in the long history of covering up, the body has been increasingly garbed in mystery. “More than visible nakedness,” she argues, “clothes increase curiosity about all that lies beneath.” The act of covering up, then, fires the imagination and we project “subconscious desires, dreams, and fantasies onto… other people’s bodies.” We might, for instance, look at a fully-clothed woman’s face to make imagined inferences about the shape of her legs or the colour of her nipples.

Schipper banks on historically-determined clothing practices for her postulations. Often, she reveals surprising facts, like how exposing breasts was less risqué in Western society than legs, shoulders, and heels. She breaks the assumption that garbing the genitals, and later the whole body, became a universal norm after European colonisation. Using the account of Louis Jacolliot, a doctor in the French colonial army, she elucidates how the Polynesian Kanaka people, who covered their genitals before the French arrived, were appalled by the sight of white men swimming naked. Such revelations force us to acknowledge that the act of covering the body carries historical baggage that isn’t linear. There might be precise standards of propriety in public, but the trajectories along which they were cemented are nebulous.

Schipper’s project is a feminist one. By describing traditions of dressing and viewing the naked body, she asserts that in most cultures, women’s bodies have had to be the moral flag-bearers and, consequently, have been confined, devalued, and brutalised. Segregation of baths, imposition of veils, and the denial of the right to wear trousers are just a few of the examples Schipper draws on to emphasise that women are continually objectified and treated as both collective and personal property. She rebukes the patriarchal system enforced by religious leaders, husbands, brothers, and other women.

Correct as her argument is, it is also glaringly uniform. While she talks about women from different cultures, her presentation of the feminist project evades the messiness of cultural differences. She acknowledges that in many cultures, modest, traditional dressing has been a post- and anti-colonial impulse to disavow the colonial masters’ morality. But she does not give equal weight to a woman’s right to cover herself, to wear a veil even when she has the freedom not to. Although Schipper examines the inequality inherent in the burkini ban and tries to be neutral in her scrutiny of all religions, she unwittingly privileges a white, European argument about bodily rights. She focuses on countering the regressive practices against women in many Islamic states with evidence from the Koran itself. On the role of Khadija and Aisha in the Koran, Schipper writes: “Muslims living in the present time might wonder what would happen to the wives of the Prophet if they had to live today in communities mercilessly applying sharia laws. For contemporary believers, the answer to that question is an excellent yardstick for making personal choices.”

Applying such religion-based arguments to unequal gender practices within Islam and no other religion is misplaced. It would be better to argue for the rights of Muslim women on more universal, human rights grounds than endow them with agency given by religious scripture.

Such unconvincing stances and, indeed, the absence of palpable conclusions, stand apparent. Most chapters end with ambiguous statements or rhetorical questions that dilute the importance of the scholarship. “The old story of men looking and women being looked at does not seem to be going away, but… intelligence is less perishable than beauty,” Schipper writes, throwing at us inspirational fodder rather than considered argument. The dearth of rigorous challenges, if not conclusions, leaves Naked or Covered a timely and factually enlightening read, though not wholesome enough for political contest.

Poorna Swami is a writer based in Bengaluru

Published on January 05, 2018

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