Some time ago, I wrote about the complexity of burlesque costumes. Some of the ideas in that post were reinforced at my visit to this year’s London Burlesque Festival. As always, the costumes were fabulous, and here are some of the best…
A 1937 domestic advice feature published in Life Magazine (15 February, pp. 41-43) contrasts descriptions of how a woman might dress unobserved with how she ought to dress in front of her husband. The article stresses the importance of rolling … Continue reading
James Bond has a reputation for being well-dressed. He is equally notorious for his tendency to undress. His many encounters with Bond girls require speedy and easy undressing, and hand-to-hand combat often occurs with shirts removed or cuffs rolled up. The … Continue reading
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Late twentieth century media, the sexual liberation of women, led to the rise of the female spectator. This resulted in a conflict of values: men were not traditionally supposed to be viewed as sexual objects, and yet women wanted to desire them sexually. Hence, Star Trek sought to enhance Kirk’s sex appeal, and to encourage female spectatorship, without overtly presenting Kirk as sexually-motivated.
At the time that Star Trek’s original series first aired (1966-1969), there was not much discussion about the meaning of male nudity, nor the female spectator. It is only in more recent decades that theorists such as Laura Mulvey have begun to explore the difference between the meaning of male and female nudity, and the gendered gaze, and how things were shifting as a result of the move towards sexual equality.
There were several key problems facing Star Trek screenwriters who want to give audiences a glimpse of male flesh. Perhaps the most pertinent of these was that the 1960s, and hence the fictional future as depicted in the Star Trek original series, was patriarchal. Peter Lehman argues that “avoiding the sexual representation of the male body… works to support patriarchy” . Male characters, particularly Kirk (as leader), had to remain authoritative and masculine. As Laura Mulvey observed, “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification” . A man who voluntarily disrobes with the intention of displaying himself as the subject of sexual desire can be viewed as vain. Vanity is historically viewed as a feminine trait, and thus the male striptease can compromise masculinity.
Additionally, the naked male body can be viewed as “threatening” to the female audience, since voluntary exhibitionism is closely linked to sexual aggression. It is noteworthy that Kirk was often shown as sexually reluctant – the victim of sexual desire rather than the perpetrator.
James T. Kirk could not, therefore, be seen to exhibit his body intentionally. Rather, nudity had to be imposed upon him. It could be incidental, accidental, or justified for practical (and manly) reasons, but never purposeful.
Kirk’s semi-nudity was made more acceptable by being shown as the consequence of masculine aggression. A violent tussle with enemy foe could be the cause of a ripped shirt, and hence an exposed nipple. Kirk’s toughness could be reinforced by a splatter of blood or sweat on the exposed skin. In hand-to-hand combat, Kirk could progress towards nudity without appearing to voluntarily expose himself to the audience. He satisfied the sexual urges of some audience members, without compromising the masculine values that mattered to the remaining viewers.
Kirk was thus positioned as the heroic nude, or the athletic nude, comparable to the characters depicted in cultural artefacts of Ancient Greece (and, of course, their thinly veiled homoeroticism). His sculptural semi-nudity connotes heroism, strength, and agility.
Pierre Brule, in his observations of Ancient Greek athletic nudes, noted that “nudity was the distinctive mark of being both male and Greek, since neither Barbarians nor women exercised naked” . Parallels can be drawn between Ancient Greek’s approach to Barbarians, and Star Fleet’s approach to uncivilised alien societies. In this context, Kirk’s semi-nudity is a sign not only of his masculinity, but also his humanity. His bare chest, with smooth pink skin, is evidence of his status as human, in contrast to the assorted blues and greens of his alien combatants.
In hand-to-hand combat, there is also a descent into savagery. In times of foreign exploration, explorers who have encountered tribes who wear little or no clothing have often been assumed to be primitive “savages” . Their nakedness was thought to be a reliable indicator that such groups of people were under-developed, having not yet developed the intellectual capacity for morality, and hence for the ideas that nakedness is shameful. Among European and American slave traders, nudity was enforced to keep perceived savages in their place; as a sign of their status as possessions – equivalent to animals such as cattle – rather than humans. In Kirk’s own descent towards savagery, he must abandon the civilised negotiation techniques of Starfleet. As the uniform is ripped, Starfleet’s regulations and values and tossed aside. Kirk becomes a beast that cannot be tamed by the authority and civility of his employers.
Star Trek was by no means pioneering in its use of the ripped shirt. There are numerous films and TV series that depicted men in similar semi-nude states, always imposed by masculine acts of action or violence. Take, for example, The Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961), in which Eddie’s shirt is ripped to shreds in an explosion. Here, though the shirt is torn and Eddi’e chest is fully exposed, his tie remains intact to retain some sense of respectability and civility.
Other sci-fi and fantasy tales find similar excuses to expose the bodies of their male heroes. For characters including The Hulk (aka Bruce Banner), or numerous werewolf tales (Buffy’s Oz, Being Human’s George Sands, etc.) the loss of a shirt is a clear indicator of descent into savagery. The civilised human identity transforms into the primal/animal identity, and during this descent vestiges of civility and advancement are destroyed. With these werewolf tales, as with Kirk, the nudity is imposed, not performed. It is a consequence of the violent transformation that characterises the curse. The male body becomes the victim of nudity.
Nudity gives these characters a particular vulnerability when they transform back into human form. The human alter-ago is often meek: the polar opposite of his beastly counterpart. This is particularly true of Buffy’s Oz, and the Hulk in Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble. As Bruce Banner has lost his clothes in his transformation from human to beast, when he reverts to his human form he is left without protection from cold or the prying eyes of curious onlookers. He is forced to hide, or make do with borrowed or stolen coverings. Nudity thus reinforces the vulnerability of man, in contrast to beast.
Though Kirk’s imposed nudity was a fairly regular occurrence, more recent sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy have exploited it to such an extent that it has become a defining feature. Promotional materials for MTV’s Teen Wolf unashamedly permit voyeurism in their teenage audience, with images depicting a naked torso beneath ripped shirt: an image that has come to signify a recent transition from man to beast, and vice versa.
 Lehman, Peter, Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993, p. 6.
 Mulvey, laura, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen Vol. 16. Issue 3 (Autumn 1975) p. 12.
 Cooper, Emmanuel, Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography, Oxon: Routledge, 1990, p. 8; and Tejirian, Edward Male to Male: Sexual Feeling Across the Boundaries of Identity, New York: Routledge, 2000.
 cited in Moss, Rachel E., ‘An Orchard, A Love Letter and Three Bastards: The Formation of Adult male Identity in Fifteenth Century Family’, in What is Masculinity? John H. Arnold, Sean Brady (eds), New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001, p. 231.
 Perniola, Mario, ‘Between Clothing and Nudity’, 1989, as cited in Barcan, Ruth, Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, 2009.
“Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes?… There are no erogenous zones; it is intermittence which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing… between two edges…; it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance” – Roland Barthes 
In a previous post I mentioned Roland Barthes’ suggestion that an illicit glimpse of flesh can be more enticing than nudity. In fashion and costume, garments have always been notable for what they expose rather than cover (see, for example, the controversy caused by decreasing skirt length in the first half of the twentieth century). In such cases, fabric is notable in its absence, often more than its presence (which is taken for granted).
In the twenty-first century we are so jaded to the sight of near-naked bodies that they seem unremarkable. It is not uncommon to see legs, stomachs and cleavages on show. This contemporary fashion environment has yielded jeggings and super-low necklines that leave little to the imagination. Bare skin on display has become unremarkable, and has lost its power to shock or entice. As a result, Barthes’ words were never more true. The legs on display under a miniskirt are far less enticing than the fleeting glimpse of thigh that appears intermittently through the side-split of a much longer skirt; a cleavage that is barely visible through a layer of organza is more likely to attract the eye than breasts on show in a low-cut top.
These values are reflected in high-fashion. Hussein Chalayan’s Remote Control Dress (Spring/Summer 2000) is moulded from fibreglass and resin panels which are controlled remotely, and slide in and out to reveal parts of the body. The dress reveals small areas of skin, providing viewers with a brief glimpse of the body. The glimpse is coy and fleeting, creating a sense that it is forbidden. This is, in Barthes words, “the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance”.
The most appropriate context for this debate is the world of burlesque. Burlesque, which is sometimes thought synonymous with stripping, is arguably more about keeping clothes on than taking them off. The costume transforms the act into an opulent spectacle. Dancers are celebrated for having unique and elaborate costumes. They establish the tone and theme of the act, and are essential in defining a dancer’s performance. The costume establishes the identity that the dancer has chosen for a particular act, and the show is choreographed to suit the component parts of a very particular costume. So entwined are the costume and the act, that it would be impossible to perform a burlesque dance in a substitute costume without making modifications to the routine. The costume is so vital that Eliza DeLite recently put her Strip ‘n’ Shimmy act on hold for costume restoration . Every movement is choreographed around a particular garment or accessory. To a great extent, the costume dictates the moves.
In describing her debut, Dita Von Teese contrasts her performance with those of strippers by detailing her costume. She wore “a proper crinoline dress over a tightlaced corset with seamed stockings, garters, and long black opera gloves” and later “left the club a lady – in hat [and] gloves” . In a strip-club, the acts are all about flesh: strippers arrive onstage already scantily clad, and their stripping is only a prelude to nudity. The core of the show is performed either mostly or completely nude. In contrast, burlesque dancers sustain the striptease until the very last moment of the show. The nudity is the finale.
Burlesque performance celebrates progression towards nudity, rather than nudity itself. The longer the dancer can sustain the tease, the more erotic the performance will be. It is in the dancer’s interest to keep the clothes on for as long as possible: to remove the costume a small piece at a time, and at an almost languid pace. The dancer, and the audience, know that once she is naked, the show is over. There is nothing left to discover.
The burlesque costume is designed to slow the progress towards nudity. It contains many more garments and accessories than an everyday wardrobe, and dresses are often composed of several parts that can be detached and removed separately. Costumes can consist of numerous layers, beginning with an overcoat or cape, then a dress of several parts, and even when that is removed there are usually three or four layers of lingerie underneath, each layer of which is progressively smaller and more revealing. The greater the number of pieces, the longer it will take to remove the costume, and hence the more provocative the act will be. As each small part is removed, only minor progress is made towards revealing the body.
The eroticism of the striptease may be, in part, nostalgic. Nostalgia is at the core of many burlesque acts. Burlesque celebrates the 1940s pin-up and 1920s Hollywood glamour. The costumes tend to include vintage or historical references, not least with corsets. But more than this, it celebrates a time when bare flesh was not so ubiquitous. In that context, a flash of ankle or a glimpse of shoulder is worthy of celebration.
See the Pinterest gallery which accompanies this article: http://pinterest.com/costumeand/burlesque/
 Roland Barthes, ‘Where the Garment Gapes’, extract from Pleasure of the Text, 1975, reproduced in ed. Malcolm Barnard, Fashion Theory: A Reader, London: Routledge, 2007, p. 601.
 Eliza Delite, http://eliza-delite.wix.com/burlesque#!acts/vstc4=article-2
 Dita Von Teese, Burlesque and the Art of the Tease, New York: Harper Collins, 2006, p. 20.
This is brief, informal, and slightly off-topic expansion of the opinions I expressed on Woman’s Hour this morning. I was invited to respond to the nudity in Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ video, in light of comments made in a previous broadcast, which suggested that the video was exploitative.
The Blurred Lines video (see below) is available in censored and uncensored versions, one in which women are featured topless, and another in which they are partially clothed. The censored version is being screened on TV and YouTube, while the other must be sought out on sites like Vevo and Daily Motion, which have fewer restrictions.
Nudity has long been associated with exploitation. Historically, it was imposed on slaves because of its connotations of savagery, and although those connotations have diminished, there have also been associations with sexual exploitation that remain today. The debate surrounding Robin Thicke’s video seems to suggest that there are still a large number of people who assume that any women who is naked is being exploited.
Organisations like Object and UK Feminista rally against “the sexualisation of women”. Though this is a noble aim, its supporters too readily conclude that all nude images in pop culture are sexually motivated and/or exploitative.
I felt the need to join this discussion to stress that the relationship between nudity and sexualisation is not inherent or universal. Sexualisation and nudity are not equivalent. Indeed, Roland Barthes proposes that a glimpse of flesh is far more erotic than a fully nude body. A small area of bare skin where garments gape, or as a woman undresses, can be far more sexually charged than total nudity.
This progress towards nudity, and apparently illicit glimpses of flesh through clothed bodies, can make some videos far more sexually charged than Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. There are numerous videos which present cavorting dancers, fully clothed, that appear far more sexually exploitative. The issue is behavior, not nudity.
To imply that depictions of nude women are exploitative, purely because they are unclothed, vastly over-simplifies the issue and is potentially dangerous for impressionable audiences. If we declare that nakedness connotes exploitation, we risk encouraging shame among women who are naked in any context. To be appreciated naked by a partner, or even a wider audience, ought to be confidence-boosting. Instead, those moments will be filled with anxiety.
This discussion inevitably involves mention of the kind of body that is represented in the media: slim, young, and beautiful. Many feel that these ‘ideal’ bodies contribute to self-esteem issues among audiences with more ‘natural’ figures. Though it is true that the women in Blurred Lines are beautiful and modelesque, that does not make them unnatural. Slim bodies, just like larger bodies, are part of the natural spectrum of shape and size. We should not seek to exclude these slim bodies any more than we should exclude fat bodies.
Though less common, the depiction of fat or imperfect bodies can be even more controversial. These images have to face accusations of being “grotesque” . Nude images of Gossip singer-songwriter Beth Ditto (see below) are not often labeled as sexually exploitative, but are often presented as gross spectacle.
If it is currently impossible to view fat bodies in the same terms as thin, perhaps diversity is one way to encourage a change in perception. In other fields, such as fine art, all bodies are represented equally. The nude mothers of photographer Jade Beall, the distorted flesh of Jenny Saville’s paintings, and Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Alison Lapper, are all praised for celebrating the female nude. In music videos, however, where we expect a slim and attractive star like Rihanna to appear naked in a bath, we would never expect someone as curvaceous as Adelle to strip off for the camera. The problem is not that Rihanna is naked, rather that Adelle isn’t.
Three problems arise from this discussion: firstly, there is the assumption that all nude images are sexually motivated; secondly, that they are all exploitative; and thirdly, that these first two only apply to images of women who are slim and beautiful. We need to remind audiences that it is okay to celebrate sex, and that those celebrations should be inclusive. We should make clearer distinctions between sexualisation and nudity, without implying that sexuality should be taboo.
 Object: Women not Sex objects, http://www.object.org.uk/files/OBJECT%20FAQ.pdf
 Mashrabiyya, ‘In Vogue: Women, Beauty, the Grotesque, and the Other‘
Hair is both body and adornment. It’s natural presence makes it part of us, but in styling we treat it as equivalent to fashion. Hair is styled so that it has the same expressive potential as clothes (and even unstyled hair makes a statement). Some translations of the Bible describe hair as a “natural garment”. Ruth Barcan observes that hair exists in a “borderline category between flesh and clothing”, and argues that it is this difficulty of classification that makes us feel uneasy about hairy bodies. Barcan’s research shows that many women do not consider themselves fully naked until they have removed all of their unwanted hair.
The German word for pubic hair – schamhaar – translates into English as ‘shame-hair’, implying either that this hair is used to hide shameful body parts, or that the hair itself is shameful. This notion that pubic hair is considered shameful has been fostered by the laws of numerous countries, including Australia and Japan. Until 1982, Australian naturist magazines were obliged to airbrush pubic hair from their photographs. Until the 1990s, Japan’s obscenity laws banned the depiction of pubic hair with the unexpected side-effect of making the women in adult manga comics look like pre-pubescent girls .
When dealing with hair, there are contradictory rules for different parts of the body. Shaved underarms and long luxurious hair on the head conform to contemporary ideals of beauty and civility, but hairy underarms and a shaved head imply rebellious tendencies. Koppelman proposes that a shaved female head may be perceived as rebellious or threatening because female baldness is usually a sign of illness, or, historically, punishment. From the thirteenth to sixteenth century, head shaving was one of many punishments for adultery. At the end of WW2, French women had their heads shaved in punishment for conspiring with Nazis. More recently, a Japanese pop star who had spent a night with her boyfriend instead of rehearsing with the band, appeared on YouTube having shaved her head as an act of contrition. In her home country, criminals routinely have their heads shaved upon entering prison.
Advertisements highlight the constant battle that we seem to have with our hair. We seem afraid of an inability to control it. Bad hair days, or unwanted stubble, are a beauty nightmare. Whether it is styled or removed, there is an expectation that all hair is subject to some sort of control. Uncontrolled hair – grown when it should be shaved, tangled when it should be tamed – is the biggest hair taboo.
 See Barcan, Ruth, Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, (Oxford: Berg, 2004),74.
 Ibid. 30.
 Ibid. 26.
 Schodt, Frederik L., Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, (Stone Bridge Press, 1996), 54-55.
 Koppelman, as cited in Doan, 9.
 Virgili, Fabrice, Shorn Women: Gender and Punishment in Liberation France, (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 182.
 human Rights Watch, ‘Prison Conditions in Japan’, 12.
French conspirator: http://historicalside.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/a-french-woman-has-her-head-shaved-as.html#.UYYRro73C_E
It is the case with many artefacts that context creates meaning. A urinal in a bathroom is a utilitarian object, but displayed in a gallery and re-titled it ‘the fountain’, it becomes art. Lace is similarly affected by context. Even colour, which can have such fixed meanings in fashion, can be read differently in lace garments. Traditional colour meanings are over-ruled by context. White lace can be virginal in a bridal veil, but trashy in a peep-hole teddy. Lace has surprisingly little inherent meaning, as it varies so much depending on when, where and how it is used. In an Ann Summers lace body, lace is risqué; in Valentino’s S/S 2013 Couture collection, it is demure.
Two properties have given lace its special status. Firstly, its complexity makes it difficult to manufacture. Historically, it was made by hand, using a laborious process that required time and skill. This made such an extravagance that for many centuries it was a privilege of the aristocracy. In the Baroque era, lace was so prized that it was worn in equivalent contexts to gold and jewels. Cuffs and collars of lace were as much signifiers of wealth as bracelets and necklaces. It is this history that Valentino or Ellie Saab have in mind when they send a model down the catwalk draped head-to-toe in fine lace and tulle.
Lace’s second distinct feature is its ability to conceal and reveal simultaneously. Lace is an ‘openwork’ fabric, meaning that it features open spaces. Through these spaces are revealed whatever is underneath: sometimes another layer of fabric; sometimes bare flesh. Lace is able to cover the entire body, while simultaneously revealing everything. This intermediate state between clothedness and nakedness is, argues Mario Perniola, more erotic than nudity. Any garment that suggests the “transit” from dressed to undressed is the clothing equivalent to a striptease . It anticipates nudity, offering an illicit peek at the bounty hidden beneath.
By concealing and revealing in equal parts, lace is much like a glass half-full or half-empty. It down to the user to select his or her interpretation. The designer or the wearer can use lace for modest or immodest purposes. We may consider lace to be erotic in a bra and thong, but an identical lace can appear modest in a funeral veil. Here, the distinction is made between concealing and revealing the body. Lace lingerie covers parts of the body that are normally hidden: its purpose is to reveal. By contrast, a lace veil covers a part of the body that is normally on show: its purpose is to conceal.
 Perniola, Mario (1989) ‘Between Clothing and Nudity’, as cited in Barcan, Ruth (2009) Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, http://www.scribd.com/doc/13378257/Nudity-a-Cultural-Anatomy-Ruth-Barcan (visited 03/02/2011)
Black dress, Valentino S/S 2013: http://www.fashionologie.com/Valentino-Spring-2013-Runway-25260486?page=0%2C0%2C60#60
White dress, Ellie Saab, S/S 2013: http://www.vogue.co.uk/fashion/spring-summer-2013/couture/elie-saab
Portrait of Anne of Austria (c. 1625): http://passionatescribbles.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/going-baroque.html
Portrait of Margaret Layton by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c.1620):http://thepragmaticcostumer.wordpress.com/tag/baroque/
Funeral veil: http://magdaleena.tumblr.com/post/418150243/daphne-guinness-alexander-mcqueens-funeral and http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/black%20veil?before=67
Maison Michel lace headpieces: http://misspennydreadful.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/maison-michel-headpieces-for-next.html
Anne Summers lace teddy: http://www.littlewoods.com/ann-summers-marydoll-plunge-lace-body—black/1111614818.prd
Lise Charmel black lace lingerie ensemble: http://blog.miodestino.com/designer-lingerie/lingerie-review-lise-charmel-soir-de-venise-collection/