On the double object of concealing and attracting
“…modesty is in its origin independent of clothing, physiological modesty takes precedence of anatomical modesty, and that the primary factors of modesty were certainly developed long before the discovery of either ornament or garments…
..The impulse which leads the female animal, as it leads some African women when found without their girdles, to squat firmly down on the earth, becomes a more refined and extended play of gesture and ornament and garment. A very notable advance is made when this primary attitude of defence against the action of the male becomes a defence against his eyes.
We may thus explain the spread of modesty to various parts of the body, even when we exclude the more special influence of the evil eye. The breasts very early become a focus of modesty in women; this may be observed among many naked, or nearly naked, negro races; the tendency of the nates to become the chief seat of modesty in many parts of Africa may probably be, in large part, thus explained, since the full development of the gluteal regions is often the greatest attraction an African woman can possess.
The same cause contributes, doubtless, to the face becoming, in some races, the centre of modesty. We see the influence of this defence against strange eyes in the special precautions in gesture or clothing taken by the women in various parts of the world, against the more offensive eyes of civilised Europeans.
But in thus becoming directed only against sight, and not against action, the gestures of modesty are at once free to become merely those of coquetry. When there is no real danger of offensive action, there is no need for more than playful defence, and no serious anxiety should that defence be taken as a disguised invitation. Thus the road is at once fully open toward the most civilised manifestations of the comedy of courtship.
In the same way the social fear of arousing disgust combines easily and perfectly with any new development in the invention of ornament or clothing as sexual lures. Even among the most civilised races it has often been noted that the fashion of feminine garments (as also sometimes the use of scents) has the double object of concealing and attracting. It is so with the little apron of the young savage belle. The heightening of the attraction is, indeed, a logical outcome of the fear of evoking disgust.
It is possible that intercrural cords and other primitive garments have a physical ground, inasmuch as they protect the most sensitive and unprotected part of the body, especially in women. We may note in this connection the significant remarks of K. von den Steinen, who argues that among Brazilian tribes the object of the uluri, etc., is to obtain a maximum of protection for the mucous membrane with a minimum of concealment.
Among the Eskimo, as Nansen noted, the corresponding intercrural cord is so thin as to be often practically invisible; this may be noted, I may add, in the excellent photographs of Eskimo women given by Holm.
But it is evident that, in the beginning, protection is to little or no extent the motive for attaching foreign substances to the body. Thus the tribes of Central Australia wear no clothes, although they often suffer from the cold. But, in addition to armlets, neck-bands and head-bands, they have string or hair girdles, with, for the women, a very small apron and, for the men, a pubic tassel. The latter does not conceal the organs, being no larger than a coin, and often brilliantly coated with white pipeclay, especially during the progress of corrobborees, when a large number of men and women meet together; it serves the purpose of drawing attention to the organs.
When Forster visited the unspoilt islanders of the Pacific early in the eighteenth century, he tells us that, though they wore no clothes, they found it necessary to cover themselves with various ornaments, especially on, the sexual parts. “But though their males,” he remarks, “were to all appearances equally anxious in this respect with their females, this part of their dress served only to make that more conspicuous which it intended to hide.” He adds the significant remark that “these ideas of decency and modesty are only observed at the age of sexual maturity,” just as in Central Australia women may only wear aprons after the initiation of puberty.
“There are certain things,” said Montaigne, “which are hidden in order to be shown;” and there can be no doubt that the contention of Westermarck and others, that ornament and clothing were, in the first place, intended, not to conceal or even to protect the body, but, in large part, to render it sexually attractive, is fully proved. We cannot, in the light of all that has gone before, regard ornaments and clothing as the sole cause of modesty, but the feelings that are thus gathered around the garment constitute a highly important factor of modesty.
Among some Australian tribes it is said that the sexual organs are only covered during their erotic dances; and it is further said that in some parts of the world only prostitutes are clothed. “The scanty covering,” as Westermarck observes, “was found to act as the most powerful obtainable sexual stimulus.” It is undoubtedly true that this statement may be made not merely of the savage, but of the most civilised world. All observers agree that the complete nudity of savages, unlike the civilised décolleté or détroussé, has no suggestion of sexual allurement. (Westermarck quotes numerous testimonies on this point, op. cit., pp. 192 et seq.).
Dr. R. W. Felkin remarks concerning Central Africa, that he has never met more indecency than in Uganda, where the penalty of death is inflicted on an adult found naked in the street. (Edinburgh Medical Journal, April, 1884.) A study of pictures or statuary will alone serve to demonstrate that nakedness is always chaster in its effects than partial clothing. As a well-known artist, Du Maurier, has remarked (in Trilby), it is “a fact well known to all painters and sculptors who have used the nude model (except a few shady pretenders, whose purity, not being of the right sort, has gone rank from too much watching) that nothing is so chaste as nudity.
Venus herself, as she drops her garments and steps on to the model-throne, leaves behind her on the floor every weapon in her armoury by which she can pierce to the grosser passions of men.”
Burton, in the Anatomy of Melancholy (Part III, Sect. II, Subsect. 3), deals at length with the “Allurements of Love“, and concludes that “the greatest provocations of lust are from our apparel.” The artist’s model, as one informs me, is much less exposed to liberties from men when nude than when she is partially clothed, and it may be noted that in Paris studios the model who poses naked undresses behind a screen.
An admirable poetic rendering of this element in the philosophy of clothing has been given by Herrick, that master of erotic psychology, in “A Lily in Crystal,” where he argues that a lily in crystal, and amber in a stream, and strawberries in cream, gain an added delight from semi-concealment; and so, he concludes, we obtain
“A rule, how far, to teach,
Your nakedness must reach.”
In this connection, also, it is worth noting that Stanley Hall, in a report based on returns from nearly a thousand persons, mostly teachers, (“The Early Sense of Self,” American Journal of Psychology, 1898, p. 366), finds that of the three functions of clothes—protection, ornament, and Lotzean “self-feeling”—the second is by far the most conspicuous in childhood. The attitude of children is testimony to the primitive attitude toward clothing…”
It cannot, however, be said that the use of clothing for the sake of showing the natural forms of the body has everywhere been developed. In Japan, where nakedness is accepted without shame, clothes are worn to cover and conceal, and not to reveal, the body. It is so, also, in China. A distinguished Chinese gentleman, who had long resided in Europe, once told Baelz that he had gradually learnt to grasp the European point of view, but that it would be impossible to persuade his fellow-countrymen that a woman who used her clothes to show off her figure could possibly possess the least trace of modesty. (Baelz, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 1901, Heft 2, p. 179.).