Levine Reveals Colonial Resistance in Nakedness

By Miguel A. Novoa Cipriani – Clothing can signify wealth and power, while nakedness can represent primitiveness. On April 30, 2018, Philippa Levine revealed the role of nakedness in relations between colonizer and colonized at the height of the British Empire.

Philippa Levine, professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin, looks beyond clothing as a social marker, considering its absence—nakedness—crucial in shaping the relations between the colonizers and the colonized within the British Empire. “What exactly is a naked body?” she asked at the beginning of her talk, which was titled “The Empire Has No Clothes: Nakedness and the Colonial Imagination."

According to Levine, the definition of nakedness varies among societies, reflecting distinct cultural values rather than a globally-accepted standard.Placed within an imperial-colonial framework, nakedness became a contentious identity marker, understood differently by both the colonizers and the colonized.  

Nudity and nakedness

European colonizers regarded the non-European unclothed body as uncultured, whereas they praised the nudity of ancient European sculptures as the pinnacle of civilization. “In an era of high colonialism,” Levine explained, “the difference between nudity and nakedness had distinct racial as well as sexual precedence, dividing the civilized from the savage.” 

In 1875, the British Association for the Advancement of Science even collected data, such as height and weight, and photographs of “racial types” to develop an index of negresence to measure “degeneration” within the British Isles, specifically Ireland. The naked body featured prominently in these photographs. “Nakedness acted increasingly not merely as scientific but as a measure for a racialized reading for savagery and primitiveness.” 

Measurer and measured

Not all images studied by Levine satisfied a scientific purpose, but even these other pictures were heavily influenced by ideas of race, savagery, and primitiveness. In these photos, power relations are evidenced not just by relative positions or measuring tools, used by the colonizers to gather data on the bodies of indigenous inhabitants, but primarily by clothing and nakedness. “It makes clear who gets measured and who gets to do the measuring.” 

The clothing of naked bodies by missionaries also served as an expression of power, supported by a sense of religious authority. “All over the world,” Levine said, “sexuality was a core of missionary work, as its practitioners strove to mold proper behavior and tidy family structures.” Missionaries also worked closely with anthropologists, providing them with data. To raise funds, missionaries even sold photographs of unclothed natives as “educational” postcards, popular in nineteenth-century Europe, without repercussion for indecency. 

Nakedness as resistance

Indigenous peoples also held their own distinct views of nakedness, such as certain groups regarding body markings or piercings as sufficient covers for their bodies. Nonetheless, they also had a clear understanding of the European colonizers’ views on nakedness. Furthermore, they knew about Europeans’ derogatory views and practices towards them. “The ‘simple native’ was not unaware of any of this,” Levine said.

This awareness provided indigenous peoples with an opportunity to perform resistance through their nakedness. For example, Mahatma Gandhi wore a loincloth to meetings with British officials, much to their dismay. In fact, memoranda from members of the British Indian government often expressed their anger at Gandhi’s habitual garment, one even declaring “won’t that damned man wear some clothes.” But according to Levine, Gandhi knew exactly what he was doing: “flipping the power relationship.”

In another instance, in 1944, a group of black African men in Nigeria presented themselves at a formal European pageantry. They stood, proudly, for a photograph showing their naked bodies painted in white. “The roles assigned under colonial rule to nakedness were not lost on these men,” Levine said. “Their message was surely clear: the sensibilities of colonial rulers and settlers were never fully embraced or adopted by those they wanted to change, rule, and dominate. Truly, the empire, literally and metaphorically, had no clothes.” 

This event was sponsored by the Department of History.

Learn more about Philippa Levine.