Naturism as we know it today is only a century old. Group nudity has, however, existed since the dawn of time. Our distant ancestors lived naked, covering themselves in animal skins only when the weather demanded it. The ancient Olympics were practised naked. The Spartans practised sport in the nude. The Greek word “gymnos” (naked) was the origin of the word “gymnasium” (place to train naked). The Romans constructed public baths in cities across the Empire, where total nudity was required. The Celts went into battle naked. None of this was organised naturism but, apart from the Celtic warriors, these people were naked when circumstances called for it and this nudity did not shock anybody. One only needs to look at ancient art of the Roman Empire or the Middle East to see just how normal nudity was.
The arrival of Christianity in Rome announced a new era of modesty. Nudity was demonised and became taboo within the religions of “The Book”: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The first crucifixes showed Christ naked until the 6th century, when the Church ordered the addition of a loincloth. Baptism was practised naked, in the image of the first baptisms, until the 8th century.
Between the 2nd and 4th centuries, a Christian sect called the Adamites practised “holy” naturism in North Africa. Their goal was a heaven on Earth in the image of Adam and Eve before the fall. They lived naked, rejected marriage, practised free love and avoided work. Having disappeared after the 4th century, the sect reappeared in Europe in the 13th century in Bohemia, Austria and Flanders.
In 1372, Jeanne Daubenton was burned alive in Paris’s Place de Grève. She was a member of the Turlupins, a sect inspired by the Adamites. The Turlupins practised naturism and communism, being part of the free-spirit movement that developed in the Middle Ages. Excommunicated as heretics by Pope Gregory XI, they were then accused by King Charles V of France of destabilising social order. He disbanded the sect and condemned certain members to death.
Upon their arrival in the New World in 1492, the Spanish found a people who often lived nude, perfectly sensible in the warm climate of Central America. In an effort to save their souls, the Spanish dressed the natives and converted them to Catholicism.
The Japanese have been bathing nude in thermal baths for nearly a thousand years. Today it is rare to find mixed-gender baths but, on his or her side of the baths, men and women practise a form of nudity which resembles our own concept of naturism, where different generations mix in an atmosphere of relaxation and conviviality.
It was during the 19th century – the Victorian Era – that modesty reached its peak. At the end of the century, a quarter of the world’s population was part of the British Empire. The poor savages across the Empire, who lived naked and had not yet discovered Jesus, were made to dress in English attire, in spite of the enormous difference in temperature.
None of these societies practiced naturism; they lived in harmony with nature. The American Indians, the Pacific Islanders and the Australian Aborigines wore little or nothing, depending on the weather. Islanders of both sexes surfed naked in the sea until the arrival of western modesty in the 1870s.
A reaction against Victorianism began before the end of the 19th century. The first naturist club was created in India in 1891, with just three members, Charles Edward Gordon Crawford and two brothers, Andrew and Kellogg Calderwood. The naturist philosophy was born in Germany with the FKK (Freikörperkultur) at the beginning of the 20th century, later spreading to France and the United Kingdom. Naturism was associated with a pure lifestyle – sun, fresh air, sport practised in open air and, often, vegetarianism and abstinence from alcohol. Naturism arrived in the United States and Canada in the 1930s.
The first naturist clubs were secret societies, behind high walls. Members did not talk about it outside of the club and in naturist magazines family names were never published. Single men were refused membership and potential members underwent rigorous interviews before their application was accepted…or not.
In France in 1931, Gaston and André Durville opened Heliopolis, Europe’s oldest naturist village, on the Mediterranean island Ile du Levant. On the Atlantic Coast, north of Bordeaux, CHM Montalivet, the first real naturist resort, opened in 1950. It was followed in 1975 by Euronat, Europe’s largest naturist village. The end of the 1960s saw the construction of Cap d’Agde’s naturist village, which attracted naturists from all around the world. For twenty years, the naturist philosophy reigned there.
The hippy culture of the 1960s and 70s contributed to a larger acceptance of naturism. The number of nude beaches grew and more and more people started practising. The “secret societies” were living their last days; a new generation wanted to live a type of naturism without barriers, open to all. In certain countries, notably Denmark, almost all beaches were granted “free” status.
Thus was born free naturism. One was no longer required to be a card-carrying member of a federation to be called a naturist. The naturist movement evolved in the sense that there was no longer just one type of naturism; people were free to live naturism as they chose, all year inside and outside if one wished or only in the sun in summer. However, this evolution brought on a certain decline; in an effort to attract more members, clubs and resorts dropped the “total nudity required” rule. Today, there are practically no nude resorts in which everybody is naked. Worse again, naturist resorts were invaded in the 1990s by the swinger set. Luckily, many resorts insist on strict rules to be respected but others have been totally abandoned by their former naturist clientele.
A phenomenon which has appeared over the past few years is the use of nudity in demonstrations. For several years, PETA has been using images of naked people, often celebrities, to protest against the fur trade. At the “World Naked Bike Ride” the participants are naked to accentuate the fragility of cyclists on the roads, against cars, motorbikes and pollution. Even if this type of event is not naturist per se, I am sure that at every WNBR the visible joy that participants experience being naked and free makes at least some spectators decide to give naturism a go.
So, what is the future of naturism? We have come a long way since the images of early 20th century naturists, who were all gods on Earth; today naturism is open to everyone and in the true spirit of the movement, no-one is judged for his or her physical flaws. Naked, we present ourselves as we are. I personally feel more comfortable naked than clothed. Without this barrier of material, we have nothing left to hide and are perhaps more open with our naturist friends than with textile friends. If we can continue to live a purely social form of naturism, the future is bright. Naturist federations – who still work hard for our freedom – today encourage people to be open about naturism, to talk about it with one’s entourage. Many textiles decide to try naturism when they find out that a friend, relative or colleague practises it. And in being open about it with our “textile” entourage, we often find that we are not alone!
Long live naturism!!