"Adam and Eve" by Peter Paul Rubens

Modesty is a total failure. It draws attention to the very body part it's supposed to be concealing, then boosts its lusty spell. Current standards bloom from a popular segment in Genesis, the Fall, which identifies "our sexual organs as badges of sin," writes Bernard Rudofsky in The Unfashionable Human Body. (Once they saw they were naked, Adam and Eve chose sensible fig-leaf aprons and animal-hide tunics, though their pre-Fall apparel was livelier: Adam's only garment was "the Lord's cloud," and it "surrounded him at all times." Perhaps this embodied a stylish burst of dry ice backlit with purple neon, though Bernard says it might have resembled the "halo-leotards of the saints.")

As it happens, keeping the dirty parts in prolonged exposure actually provokes the wholesome response the Good Lord desires. Today, we react with indifference to the same feet, ankles, knees, shoulders, and necks our ancestors so carefully shrouded, causing them to marinate for years in spicy sex fantasies. (In the mid-'60s, boobs had potential to join this collection as designer Rudi Gernreich launched his topless gowns and bathing suits, yet the trend didn't catch on, which is more than disappointing.) Physicality is always more exciting in our imagination anyhow, insists James Laver in Modesty and Dress: "Complete nudity is anti-erotic, as soon as the shock of novelty has worn off; and it does wear off, surprisingly quickly."

Not every culture links modesty so directly with boning, and James's book is crammed with antiquated but compelling world facts. A Japanese boatman, for instance, "will take off his clothes when it begins to rain and store them in a dry place ready to put on again when the rain is over." The Australian aborigine, James writes, "is indifferent to his own nakedness but is deeply ashamed if he is seen eating." James also quotes E. Adamson Hoebel, who describes a male traveler's efforts to obtain "the large cylindrical wooden plugs worn in the pierced ear lobes and lower lips" of a Botocudo woman in the Amazon, "who stood all unabashed in customary nudity before him." Following a prolonged trade negotiation, she willingly removed her labrets, but suddenly finding herself "stripped of her proper raiment, she fled in shame and confusion into the jungle." And in the Middle East, an "Arab peasant woman caught in the fields without her veil will throw her skirt over her head," revealing what we happen to regard as a far more private area. recommended

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