Naked natives and noble savages
The cultural work of nakedness in imperial Britain
in The cultural construction of the British world
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By the middle of the eighteenth century, and as European colonialism became a dominating political force, the naked body had come to represent the savagery and backwardness of colonized and colonisable peoples. Whether depicted as noble savages attuned to the natural world or as wild peoples beyond the remit of civilization, to Britons the state of nakedness increasingly signified distance from civilization and reason. This chapter explores that linkage, firstly through eighteenth-century British representations of Native Americans and Pacific Islanders, and then through an examination of British discourse concerning dance, where an explicit and often alarmed sexualization of the state of undress was paramount well into the twentieth century.

This essay proposes, above all, that nakedness is not a simple description nor a state of being but a contested historical marker with very particular and peculiar ties to the generation of ideas regarding the British self and the foreign or colonial other in the British imperial context.

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