Black Bear Ranch. Photo: Justine Kurland

Black Bear Ranch. Photo: Justine Kurland

LOST PARADISE: A Brief History of Nudism

By Jesse Lynn Dell

Nakedness is our most primordial state of being. It is existence at its most vulnerable and elemental, recalling the innocence of birth and our inseparability with Nature. Stripping away clothing is both humbling and liberating in its abandonment of outward markers and status signs, leaving only a layer of skin to set us apart in the world.

Adornment of the body serves various purposes, whether it be protective, ceremonial, creatively inspired or oppressively dictated. In Western history, moral taboos surrounding nudity developed along with the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire, which sought to stamp out all vestiges of paganism, nature worship and the associated pleasures of the sensual, physical world. During the Middle Ages, various religious sects formed in response to the oppression of the Catholic Church only to be extensively persecuted, including the Adamites of Bohemia (who practiced nudism and rejected marriage). Nudity and naturism went underground, having inadvertently become one of the greatest acts of rebellion in civilized society.

The arrest of Adamites in a public square in Amsterdam. Etching by F. Morellon la Cave

The arrest of Adamites in a public square in Amsterdam. Etching by F. Morellon la Cave

Despite the centuries-long assault, a thread of the old ways survived to the turn of the 19th century when a cultural renaissance took hold and flourished in Germany and spread across Europe. This cultural reform movement or ‘lebensreform’ was a reaction to the rampant industrialization and pollution in European cities. Reformers advocated an idyllic, back-to-nature lifestyle that included natural cures, raw food diets, forest meditation, hiking and nude sun bathing or “light-air baths.” Nudism went hand in hand with health and fitness, and after the publication of Louis Kuhne’s book New Science of Healing (1883) and Adolph Just’s Return to Nature (1896), intentional communities sprang up across the region. Richard Ungewitter advocated nudism as "an aristocratic trait" in his book Die Nacktheit (Nakedness), published in 1904. The mountain retreat Monte Verità in Ascona, Switzerland became a hotbed for nudism, life-experiments, intellectual exchanges and creative happenings- attracting seekers, artists and cultural luminaries such as Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung, Isadora Duncan, Paul Klee and Rudolf Steiner.

Rudolf von Laban (right) and his dancers at Monte Verità in Ascona, Switzerland, circa 1914.

Rudolf von Laban (right) and his dancers at Monte Verità in Ascona, Switzerland, circa 1914.

While Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau were also early proponents of nude bathing and nature walks, naturism did not take off in the United States until German reformers migrated to Southern California in the early 20th century. John and Vera Richter opened Eutropheon in 1917, the first live-food restaurant in Los Angeles, and with it spread the naturmensch and lebensreform philosophies that evolved into the hippie and counterculture movement of the 1960’s.1 Nudism was a regular occurrence in communes such as Taylor Camp on the island of Kauai, Morning Star Ranch in Sonoma County and Black Bear Ranch in Siskiyou County, California. While many of these intentional communities dissolved in the late 1970’s, some still carry the torch today (albeit in altered formats), and nudist-centric retreats and 'clothing optional' travel resorts abound.

Resident at Taylor Camp on Kauai, Hawaii. Photos: John Wehrheim

Resident at Taylor Camp on Kauai, Hawaii. Photos: John Wehrheim

The mainstream institutions, however, seem to move at a glacial pace when it comes to catching up with popular preference. Ongoing censorship issues have been met with grassroots activism, with campaigns and hashtags such as #freethenipple blazing across social media in an effort to liberate the body from antiquated Puritanical views and gender-based double standards.

That said, practicing nudism doesn't have to be a political statement or involve an expensive getaway to a private island resort. It's part of a simplified worldview that, at it's core, represents a return to the natural- a call to abandon the pretenses of society in order to draw closer to that lost and longed for paradise expressed in the mythical Garden of Eden. While the search for utopia may always seem just beyond our grasp, there is little dispute that shedding all but the essentials for a touch of the sun’s restorative rays and a whispering breeze on unfettered flesh is one of life’s purest and simplest pleasures.

1. Kennedy, Gordon. (1998). Children of the Sun: A pictorial anthology from Germany to California 1883-1949. Ojai, CA: Nivaria Press.