From rugby-pitch streakers to the volunteers for Spencer Tunick's photo-calls, public nakedness is always news. The sight of humankind disporting itself outside the regions of bathroom or boudoir can still shock us. Naked ramblers like Vincent Bethell and Stephen Gough, who habitually wander the English countryside clad only in Karrimor rucksacks and stout boots, have been thrown into prison numerous times for "breaches of the peace", as though revealing the bodies we all possess beneath our polite carapace of clothing is likely to provoke a riot.
Every group of activists sooner or later discovers the usefulness of the birthday suit as a uniform of rebellion, and a visual rallying cry. Demonstrators for UK animal rights, the Polish Women's Party and the right to breastfeed in public, anti-nuclear protests in San Francisco, protests against G8 summits in Canada and Edinburgh, and against education cuts in Berlin's Alexanderplatz, all chose nakedness as their most potent symbol of passive aggression. And of course the human body is a handy, pink canvas for any protest. "Each of us is a walking billboard," says Philip Carr-Gomm, author of A Brief History of Nakedness, "whose skin offers prime advertising space. If you want your message distributed free and worldwide, just paint it on your naked body, walk into the street and call Associated Press."
In his book, Carr-Gomm, a specialist in English magic, Druidism and Wiccan arcana, investigates the ways in which nakedness has, over the centuries, been employed to further religious, political and cultural goals. His intention is to establish why nudity/nakedness excites and upsets some people to such a degree.
In religion he notes that, although nudity can be cognate with shame and sin (as in the naked Adam and Eve fleeing the Garden of Eden), Christ's nakedness on the Cross is generally taken as emblematic of suffering and humiliation. But then, the earliest religious icons included the vastly-proportioned and stark-naked Venus of Willendorf, while ancient religions in Greece and India venerated several male figures ("Man in God's image") in states of nature.
Medieval pagan sects embraced nakedness enthusiastically in sacrificial ritual. In the 13th century, the naked protest was born with the apocryphal story of Lady Godiva, wife of Leofric of Mercia, who begged her husband to lower the swingeing taxes he was levying on the townspeople of Coventry. He eventually agreed, provided she rode naked on horseback through the town. (In the tale, she asks all the townfolk to stay indoors and look away as she rides by; they all do except for Peeping Tom, who is struck blind.) Godiva became a folk heroine, her nakedness testament to her decency and kindness in the face of her husband's rapacity and cynicism.
The post-Victorian century saw a remarkable upsurge in public disportings and official disapproval – summed up by the photograph of a British policewoman chasing a gaggle of naked boys beside London's Serpentine in 1926. The world's first nudist colony, the Freilichtpark (or Free Light Park) opened in Hamburg in 1903. Naturism, sun worship, "heliotherapy" and Health and Efficiency magazine took hold among the bohemian British, while the cult of Naturmensch spread from Germany to California. Later, nakedness became part of the back-to-the-land philosophy of hippies, and a natural expression of public ecstasy: hence the topless displays at Woodstock. When a rainstorm dampened the festival-goers' ardour during a set by Jefferson Airplane, the members of the crowd yelled for Grace Slick to flash her breasts at the heavens and make the rain stop. She did; and, amazingly, it did.
Nakedness invaded the theatre stage in Hair, The Romans in Britain and Oh! Calcutta! and caused an outcry, despite claims for the intrinsic beauty of flesh. Even record sleeves weren't immune: John Lennon and Yoko Ono bared all on Two Virgins, while Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland featured a sleek seraglio of naked women lolling on a studio floor.
The furtive "striptease" – in which a bar of nervy drinkers watches mesmerised as a woman listlessly divests herself of frock, stockings and underwear to a succession of old Bee Gees hits – became public, thanks to the twin forces of advertising and fashion. They had noticed that nudity invariably meant more money. Yves Saint Laurent was the first company to feature a penis (shot in discreet shadow) in its 2002 advertisement for M7 perfume, while fashion invented the monokini, a swimming costume with no top.
Nakedness as subversive display was the impulse behind streaking, which added to the joy of nations in the 1970s. Carr-Gomm relates it to the sexual upheaval of the 1960s, which brought the contraceptive pill and the rise of feminism. Suddenly, he writes, sexual freedom "seemed not only psychologically sensible, but also one of the few antidotes available to counteract the existential despair of the nuclear age". It was the ultimate form of self-expression. Streakers began running about naked in US campuses in the 1960s. In the UK, it was the impulse of individuals: Sally Cooper, who ran across Richmond Bridge in 1974 wearing only jewellery, and was bitten on the bottom by a police dog. Weeks later, Michael O'Brien, an Australian accountant, accepted a bet to invade the England-France rugby match at Twickenham. An arresting constable placed his helmet over O'Brien's groin, and the resulting photograph of the Christ-like martyr went around the world. In 1982, Erica Roe, a Petersfield bookshop assistant, revealed her spectacular breasts to the world during an England-Australia rugby match streak; her dazzling smile while joshing with policemen was a perfect image of young, anti-authoritarian confidence.
Nobody has done more to promote popular nudity in the 21st century than the American photographer Spencer Tunick. His career began in 1986 when, on a visit to Britain, he took several nude photographs in Dulwich, London. From photographing individuals he moved on to public installations – massive photo-shoots of naked humans, sometimes representing a collective unconscious, sometimes a mass grave of victims. As his fame spread, subjects volunteered their services, like cult disciples: 7,000 people in Barcelona, 18,000 in Mexico City. They began to melt into the landscape they populated, becoming their own pink "flesh landscapes". The resulting pictures have little to do with sex, or even personal privacy; they embody vulnerability – to machines, to climate change, to predators.
The shock quality of nakedness has abated over the past 30 years, as we have grown used to unclothed rugby, surfing, skydiving, and middle-aged women's calendular exploits. Nakedness has become a style choice for sophisticates on the beach or at the rock festival. But it's good to be reminded of its emblematic quality, its role in protest, its power as reality-check. Because, in the right circumstances, nudity has been a weapon, an act of conscious defiance, a statement of the individual's right to exist for his or her own amusement, without being clamped into movements, uniforms or the chains of social inhibition. Nakedness rocks.
'A Brief History of Nakedness' by Philip Carr-Gomm, published by Reaktion Books, £19.95Reuse content