Skip to main content



Nudism is the practice of nonsexual social nudity, usually in mixed-sex groups, often at specially defined locations, such as nude beaches or nudist clubs. Nudism can be differentiated from the practice of spontaneous or private nude bathing ("skinny-dipping") in that it is an ongoing, self-conscious and systematic philosophy or lifestyle choice, rather than a spontaneous decision to disrobe. Nudists believe in the naturalness of the naked body, and in the medicinal, therapeutic, or relaxing properties of unself-conscious social nudity. They believe that modesty and shame are socially imposed restrictions on the freedom of the naked body, and that eroticism is not a necessary condition of nakedness. They frequently emphasize the importance of total nudity, arguing that partial concealment is more sexual than total exposure.

Early Nudism

Nudism arose in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century, and spread through Europe, the United States, and Australia. The so-called "father of nudism" was the German Heinrich Pudor (real name Heinrich Scham), who coined the term Nacktkultur ("naked culture") and whose book Nackende Menschen (Naked man [1894]) was probably the first book on nudism. Richard Ungewitter (author of Die Nacktheit [1906]) is more widely known as the founder of nudism, his reputation having survived Pudor's accusations of plagiarism.

Nudism flourished in Germany, France, England, elsewhere in Europe, and in the United States, but its advocates often had to fend off legal challenges or accusations of depravity. While nudism had distinctive national flavors, and there was occasionally some rivalry (especially between the French and the Germans), there was also considerable communication, influence, and overlap between nudist cultures. Nudism was known by many names: in Germany, as Nacktkultur, Freikörperkultur (free-body culture), or Lichtkultur (light culture); in France as nudisme, naturisme, or libre-culture (free culture), and in England as Gymnosophy or naturism.

Germanic nudism was a proletarian movement, mostly communitarian and ascetic in style. Its constituency was largely the unemployed and the working poor. By and large however, nudism was a movement endorsed and organized by educated people—physicians, scientists, lawyers, clergy, and, in France especially, occasionally by members of the aristocracy. Nudism produced an extensive proselytizing literature. Key nudist figures or writers of the 1920s and 1930s included: in Germany, Adolf Koch, Paul Zimmerman, and Hans Surén; in France, Marcel Kienné de Mongeot, the Durville brothers, and Pierre Vachet; in the United States, Maurice Parmelee and Frances and Mason Merrill; and in England, the Reverend Clarence Norwood, John Langdon-Davies, and William Welby. Nudists often met with religious opposition, but there were also many openly Christian nudists, who argued that it was time for Christianity to rid itself of superstition.

Early nudism was a medical, philosophical, and political movement. Its key contentions were the therapeutic benefit of unhindered access to sun and air, and the psychological benefit of an open relation to the naked body. Nudist writing commonly begins with cross-cultural and historical examples demonstrating the relativity of shame and modesty, before proceeding to expound the psychological, moral, social, and physical benefits of nudity. Clothing was considered to be both an instrument of class oppression and a major cause of ill health. Nudists claimed that an excess of shame and modesty bred psychological complexes, unhealthy relations between the sexes, and produced bodies that were both unhealthy and an affront to beauty.

The contribution of nudism to the aesthetics of the race was regularly cited as one of its benefits. Maurice Parmelee, for example, argued that nudism would contribute to a more "beautiful mankind" (p. 179). Some nudist clubs banned the disabled and the corpulent as a punishment for unhygienic lifestyles, but other nudists were troubled by too strong an emphasis on the aesthetic:

While extreme cases of deformity and mutilation can be so distressing and painful to view that there may be some justification for such exclusion, it is of supreme importance that the gymnosophy movement be maintained on a lofty humanitarian plane (Parmelee, pp. 179–180)

The relation between nudism and eugenics was complex, and use of an aesthetic discourse is no simple marker of eugenic thought or of fascism. Although Pudor, for example, was overtly anti-Semitic, Karl Toepfer warns that there was no "deep, inherent connection" between Germanic body culture and Nazism (p. 9).

Nudism was neither simply reactionary nor progressive. On the one hand, it was a trenchant critique of modernity. Nudist physicians lamented the soot-choked air of industrial cities and the lack of exposure to fresh air and sunlight of most working people. Socialist accounts argued that this physical malaise was compounded by the role of clothing in effecting oppressive social stratification; clothes were seen as masking the innate equality of all people. Some nudist writing is characterized by a romantic and nostalgic evocation of nature, a conception no doubt aided by the use in England and France of the euphemistic alternative "naturism" (a term that, incidentally, appears to be gaining some favor in contemporary nudism as a more "acceptable" term than nudism). For many writers, however, nudism was emphatically not a return to nature. As Parmelee put it, the idea that nudists want to discard anything artificial or man-made was "manifest folly" (p. 15). Scientists and physicians saw nudism not as a return to Eden (although this trope certainly occurred in nudist writing), but as a path forward to a shining new modernity in which science, rather than superstition, would lead the way.

Nudism was thus not (only) nostalgic but also saw itself as modern and rational. Nudist writing intersected with a raft of other modern discourses—heliotherapy (sun-cure), sexology, socialism, feminism, and eugenics. Caleb Saleeby, for example, was a fervent advocate of nudism, heliotherapy, and eugenics (he was Chairman of the National Birthrate Commission and author of a number of books on eugenics). Sexologist Havelock Ellis considered nudism to be an extension of the dress reform movement for women, and Maurice Parmelee saw it as a powerful adjunct to feminism. Ennemond Boniface was a socialist nudist, who fervently believed that nudism was an alternative to bloody socialist revolution, and would bring about a new naturist era in which all would be equal under the sun (see sidebar). For many, nudism was not just a therapeutic practice; it was a revolutionary plan for an egalitarian utopia.

Contemporary Nudism

There are a number of forms of contemporary organized nudism, each with a somewhat distinct culture: nude beaches, nudist resorts, nudist clubs, and swim-nights. "Clothes optional" resorts are becoming more common in some countries, as part of the growth of naturist tourism.

The utopian and political underpinning of early nudism has largely disappeared. Nudism has remained a minor practice, and it has by and large mutated into a "lifestyle" chosen by individuals rather than either a medical practice or a program for social reform. Contemporary nudists tend to be more private and less evangelical about their practice, and they are unlikely to see it as connected to any form of radical philosophy or politics. The major benefits are, they believe, a relaxed lifestyle and a healthy body image.

Nudism and Capitalism

The French socialist Ennemond Boniface predicted that nudism would bring about the end of capitalism:

"[T]here will be an exodus … from the cities, and the willing return … to the good nourishing earth. Little by little, men will desert the monstrous, nauseating agglomerations [of our] towns, in order to found … new and increasingly numerous naturist towns. Then … the factories, those places of hard labor where decent folk are imprisoned, will progressively become empty. The ferocious reign of the industrialist and his accomplice the banker will be over" (Salardenne, p. 93).

Body image is, in fact, the one social issue around which nudists are likely to be united in their opinion. Whereas for the early nudists, one of the prime benefits of nudism was that it would promote healthy, beautiful bodies and, by social selection, contribute to the elimination of unhygienic or unappealing bodies, contemporary nudists see nudism as a way of escaping the debilitating effects of the modern obsession with the body beautiful. They believe that nudism teaches one to be comfortable with one's body, whatever it looks like.

See alsoNudity .


Barcan, Ruth. Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy. Oxford: Berg 2004.

—— "'The Moral Bath of Bodily Unconsciousness': Female Nudism, Bodily Exposure and the Gaze." Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies 15.3 (2001): 305–319. On contemporary female nudists' accounts of the benefits of nudism.

Clapham, Adam, and Robin Constable. As Nature Intended: A Pictorial History of the Nudists. Los Angeles: Elysium Growth Press, 1982. Useful history.

Clarke, Magnus. Nudism in Australia: A First Study. Victoria: Deakin University Press, 1982. A comprehensive study.

Merrill, Frances, and Mason, Merrill. Nudism Comes to America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1932.

Norwood, C. E. (Rev). Nudism in England. London: Noel Douglas, 1933.

Parmelee, Maurice. Nudism in Modern Life: The New Gymnosophy. London: Noel Douglas, 1929. An account of the benefits of nudism by a nudist physician, with an introduction by Havelock Ellis.

Pudor, Heinrich [Heinrich Scham]. Naked People: A Triumph-Shout of the Future. Translation by Kenneth Romanes. Peterborough: Reason Books, 1998 [1894]. Earliest nudist text; little read.

Salardenne, Roger. Le nu intégrale chez les nudistes français: Reportage dans les principaux centres. Paris: Prima, 1931.

Saleeby, C. W. Sunlight and Health. London: Nisbit and Company, 1923. A eugenic view.

Toepfer, Karl. Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910–1935. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Ruth Barcan

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Nudism." Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. . 11 Sep. 2018 <>.

"Nudism." Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. . (September 11, 2018).

"Nudism." Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. . Retrieved September 11, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.