Freedom of Dress

Today is a day to celebrate freedoms here in the United States, freedoms such as those depicted by the celebrated mid-20th-century American realist painter Norman Rockwell in his series called the Four Freedoms (clockwise from top left, below): Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. These 1943 paintings, if not exclusively propaganda, were tied to government efforts to bolster faith in an American Way during World War II.

Norman Rockwell, Four Freedoms, 1943

Notice that Freedom of Dress is not included here. I can imagine it to be parallel to the Freedom of Worship: just as we are free to follow any religion – or none at all, we should be free to follow any dress code – or none at all. Far from being unimportant or insignificant, Freedom of Dress undermines not just long-held taboos about the body, but also traditional ways of enforcing gender identity and social status through textiles. The idea would seem to have been too radical for 1943.

Seventy years later, its time is ripe. Beyond the very American traditions of naturist parks and free beaches that AANR and TNS have so admirably defended – venues for social nudism as a vital lifestype option in these United States – the more international character of the WNBR, WNGD, and nude street or campus protests shows a worldwide longing to split the seams of restrictive rules on clothing. It’s worth noting, too, that the mass nude shoots of American photographer Spencer Tunick have found wide acceptance overseas, often more so than in these United States.

Can you imagine a Rockwell painting of a Tunick photograph? Perhaps that particular overlap between these two American artists is a stretch, but, returning to Rockwell, we can see that Freedom of Dress, in some ways, is not such a new idea. Another of his well-known paintings depicts some boys who have been skinny-dipping running away from the swimming hole, wet and struggling to dress: someone has discovered them. But the “No Swimming” sign, which is also the title of the 1921 painting, leads to the conclusion that the boys’ “crime” has been trespassing, not nudity. After all, in the early 20th century “swimming” was still largely synonymous with “bathing” in much of the country.

Norman Rockwell, No Swimming, 1921

Is there also an element of shame to the boys’ partially dressed haste? We don’t know who has discovered them, so it’s anyone’s guess. But continued social movement toward Freedom of Dress is also, very powerfully, the movement toward Freedom from Shame.

Happy Independence Day!

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