Naked or Covered

(Bloot of bedekt)

Mineke Schipper

Naked or Covered

‘The question of which parts of the human body are to be covered and which may be left bare is as much of a battlefield today as it has ever been. Mineke Schipper provides a fascinating and wide-ranging compendium of fact and fiction about the covering of the body through the ages.’ J.M. Coetzee

‘Given the large numbers of migrants in today’s world, it seems more important than ever to explore, in exactly the register that this book adopts, complex, competing traditions of being clothed and unclothed, covered and uncovered, their histories and turning points, retreats and reassertions. That is, if there is much chance of finding ways of living together across lines of difference in an increasingly securitized and defensive world. This is the sort of book you will read in a weekend because once you begin you won’t be able to put it down. It is packed full with stories, anecdotes and mesmerizing cultural facts, animating a meticulously researched account of histories of human skin, looking and being looked at, and excitement and fear. Loved it!’ Sarah Nuttall, Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies and Director of WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research), Johannesburg, South Africa

‘With the discerning eye of an anthropologist, the literary flair of a novelist, and with sturdy common sense, Mineke Schipper guides us through millennia of remarkably diverse attitudes towards human dress and undress. Colorful, well-researched, and timely. Highly recommended.’ Steven Shankman, UNESCO Chair in Transcultural Studies, Interreligious Dialogue, and Peace and co-director, UNESCO Crossings Institute, University of Oregon, USA

‘At a time when opening up of the global economy and advent of online retail has made dressing (fashionably) a compulsion, Naked or Covered digs deep into humanity’s history to understand why clothing is much more than just a piece of cloth.’ The Telegraph, India

‘Schipper unpacks various ways of seeing and being looked at, to offer a sweeping picture of how differently people in cultures around the world view the naked body. Part-historian, part-anthropologist, Schipper creates a well-researched and anecdotal account. From the history of loincloths, to the enforcing and banning of burqas, to Hassidic headgear and Facebook censorship, Schipper covers eras and continents with ease. She treats the body — robed and disrobed — as an archaeological site, layered with half-forgotten stories and ciphers to read contemporary politics of choice, gender equality, and censorship… Schipper’s project is a feminist one. By describing traditions of dressing and viewing the naked body, she asserts that in most cultures, women’s bodies have had to be the moral flag-bearers and, consequently, have been confined, devalued, and brutalised. Segregation of baths, imposition of veils, and the denial of the right to wear trousers are just a few of the examples Schipper draws on to emphasise that women are continually objectified and treated as both collective and personal property. She rebukes the patriarchal system enforced by religious leaders, husbands, brothers, and other women.’ The Hindu Business Line

When our first ancestors began to walk on two legs instead of four, they gained a new perspective on each other’s physicality. As degrees of embarrassment or social awkwardness emerged, complicated dress codes came into being. The first instance of covering up consisted of a thread wound around the foreskin to tuck the penis out of sight under a strap worn round the hips; a case of modesty fuelled by fears of a spontaneous erection. Little by little, people began to decorate themselves with tattoos, feathers, paint, jewellery and headdresses. As humans migrated to cooler climes, animal skins were adapted for shoes and clothing.

Throughout history, cultures and religions developed specific codes to control unruly nakedness. In Imperial Japan an uncovered female neck was considered so alluring as to be scandalous; in Victorian England a heel had to be invisible; but in the Middle East women’s feet were rather less problematic than women’s hair.

Naked arms, legs or breasts are not in the least surprising to those who are used to encountering them in daily life, but in the eyes of those who walk around completely covered a glimpse of naked flesh can be shocking. The first European explorers were appalled to discover ‘savage’ humans perfectly at ease with their nakedness, but the tribal people of Africa or the Americas were equally bemused by the intruders’ insistence on covering up.

There have been eras in which European men were every bit as coquettish and ostentatious in their choice of dress as women, but since the French Revolution there has tended to be a rigid divide between notions of beauty and manliness. Now, in times of globalisation, we are confronted by a variety of perspectives on ‘normal’ dress. Advertisers routinely fall back on the female nude to sell anything from cars to scent, a choice of garment can contain a powerful political message, there are protests against nakedness and nakedness is used as protest, while contemporary interpretations of religious or cultural edicts are met with bafflement.

With an unerring eye for detail, and an engaging mixture of anecdote and historical interpretation, Mineke Schipper brilliantly dissects our fascinating and contradictory attitudes to bodily exposure and concealment through time and across cultures.

‘A very good and accessible book about body coverings and shame. Highly recommended!’

‘Schipper’s book is a great read and gives fascinating insights.’ Trouw

‘Whoever thinks clothing is about a piece of cloth, knows better after reading this book.’ Quest

‘A fascinating cultural history… nuanced and without any religion-bashing.’ History magazine


  • Prometheus NL
  • Sefsafa Arabic
  • Speaking Tiger World English
  • Beyaz Baykus Publishing Turkey
  • Anetta Antonenko Ukraine
  • Shaanxi People’s Publishing House China

Material: finished copies of Dutch edition (278pp); full English translation.