see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'

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Chapter V of 'The erotic eye and its nude'

objet de désir

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Erotic display is far but restricted to natural ways of concealing and revealing the body's appeal. Humans have always been trying to artificially increase their erotic attractiveness through a whole array of artificial means: clothes, make-up, tattoos, jewellery, prostheses, not to mention chirurgical, hormonal or genetic interventions.

Dress is the most conspicuous of these techniques, and at the same time the most intriguing, because it seems to be counterproductive through hiding the beauty of the nude from view. That does not prevent
dressing from being a very effective and sophisticated device for widening the range of erotic display and intensifying the pleasure of natural erotic charms.

To begin with, clothes tend to stir a yearning to uncover what lies beneath. In real life, the impulse to bluntly denudate a dressed body is repressed through the presence of a gaze: the gaze not only spiritualises or forbids any erotic relation, it can also teasingly postpone it. This is evidenced by Amelkovich's photo below in whichthe gaze is neutralised through blindfolding, while the arms that could ward off are bound on the back: which results in an alluring dressed body presented on a altar, helplessly awaiting its denudation before our greedy gaze:

igor amelkovich

In a more profane vein, Shiver stages the teasingly dressed body of a girl helplessly pressed against a wall. This time, the hand that is about to rip off the clothes is sneaking into the picture in the guise of its shadow:


Clothes not only stir the desire to uncover, they also make all the more desirable what they conceal - as in the very paradigm of clothing: the half-clad, half-naked bosom. That is why dressing enriches the natural range of erotic display with that most alluring of all seductive procedures: stripping. There are countless variants.

Very fascinating is the uncovering of the breasts:

eduardo segura

emil schildt


But also the taking off of shoes, the undoing of stockings or the lifting up of a smock exert an often irresistible spell:

giuseppe sarcinella


christian coigny


Especially the uncovering of the back is most exciting, since what we get to see is only an advance to the splendours on the front):

The same holds when the panties are laid off - a mere prelude to the full exposure of the nude:

richard williams

If possible even stronger is the effect of a half-slip falling from the naked body with Galvez:

yvan galvez

Although the delicate gesture disclosing the hairy triangle in Dekan's photo is not to be sneezed at:


But most enticing is the surrender of the body unpacked from that magnifcent kimono in the hand painted black and white photo of Ken-Ichi Murata:

ken-ichi murata

It is apparent, then, that clothes are not originally meant to conceal nakedness; they are intended to cover nudity - which is quite a different matter. There is no point in stripping if what is revealed is merely an indifferent, sheer naked body. On the other hand, people do not depend on clothing to hide their nudity - it suffices to be naked. Nudity only appears in an exalted body. Neither does the body lose its appeal when it is always naked. On the contrary, sheer nakedness - in much the same way as the body clad - only ignites the desire for nudity to appear.


Since no garment can possibly cover the entire body, covering of necessity equals leaving uncovered. The lustful eye can't help regarding the parts left uncovered as all the more valuable delights. Clothing, therefore, not only stirs the desire to uncover, it enhances above all the nudity of the parts left uncovered. In this sense, the state of dress is always a state of undress. That is most poignantly exemplified in the low neckline, that leaves the breasts half-covered, half-exposed.

Due to habituation, the body has to yield ever more nudity, as when the skirts are becoming shorter or the neckline is lowering. The formerly covered parts now seem all the more desirable. In the downward sense, first the eyes and the face are exposed, then the hair and the neck, then the shoulders and the bosom:

jean-bernard augier

alain paris




yvan galvez

In the sideward sense, first the hands are exposed, then the forearm, the upper arm and eventually the shoulders.

In the upward sense, first the feet are left uncovered, then the ankles and the lower legs, then the thighs:

bogdan zwir

The movement can also proceed from the waist until only the breasts and the genitals are covered, like with a bikini:

konrad gös

The neckline on the back may be lowered until the whole back is exposed:

christian coigny

The same process affects also single parts of the body: the veil covers only the hair instead of the whole face, the fingers show up through a glove that merely covers the palm of the hand, the shoe leaves ever more parts of the foot uncovered, or the cups of the bra are reduced to a mere strip over the nipples:

patrick wecksteen

christian grünewald

The covering of the waist may be reduced to a mere ribbon, or the pants to a mere string that all the more accentuates the nudity of the buttocks:

alain paris

patrick wecksteen

patrick wecksteen


So does the erotic eye regain the paradise lost to garment. But at the same time, the charms of concealing are lost. What is allowed to be naked, loses its additional charms, and a whole array of seductive gestures irrevocably evaporates: the removal of the veil, the taking off of gloves, the denudation of a leg. That cannot but elicit up a countermove: the tendency to cover what has previously been allowed to remain nude. Eventually, an ever extending array of possibilities is developed, ranging from the utter concealment of the body leaving only the eyes and the hands uncovered, and sheer nudity, leaving only the genitals covered (Kroeber).

In accordance with the natural propensity to conceal the genitalia, mostly the peripheral parts are left uncovered. A tantalising effect is derived from a complete reversal of this scheme, when the body is nude where it would normally be covered, and covered where it is normally nude. It is obvious that the splendour of the habitually covered areas of the body is heightened by contrast with the clothes on the habitually exposed parts. The latter regain their appeal precisely because they are now concealed. Which only increases the desire to eventually restore the body in its full glory.

There are several variations on the theme of reversal.

Everything is left uncovered, except for the head and the feet: (Cranach's Venus):

Everything is left uncovered, except for the hands and feet or arms and legs:

naushér banaji

Everything is left uncovered, except for the waist:

patrick wecksteen

patrick wecksteen

Everything is left uncovered, except for a necklace or a bracelet:

marcus lindner

Everything is covered, except for the vagina or the buttocks:

kenn lichtenwalter

Only the upper or lower part of the body are covered:

bogdan zwir

bogdan zwir

Only the left of right side of the body is covered:

herman pivk

tono stano

steve diet goedde

The front is covered and the back left nude, or vice versa .

The reversal is also most cherished in the parts. Everything is covered, but the breasts are left nude:

andy metal

Or the sleeves and/or legs are reduced to a cover around the elbows and knees.

Very exciting is also the contrast between a body naked and a body clad, as when the completely dressed lover holds his utterly nude beloved, as has been customary in the many pietas and Manet's well-known 'Déjeuner sur l'herbe'.

When the reversal is too drastic, it resorts a reverse effect, especially when the onlooker is suddenly confronted with uncovered genitals in an otherwise completely clad body. Only when the onlooker has been previously turned on by the sight of more peripheral parts is the eye prepared to enjoy the sight of the genitals. That is why blunt exposure cannot fail to provoke revulsion - in which resides the secret charm of the performance of the exhibitionist (in the strict sense of the word). Also when nude breasts are isolated, they often exert a threatening effect - as with Ingres, where the effect is obtained through letting the body submerge in shadowy areas.


A new impetus for playing the game of concealing and revealing is given when the body is covered with more than one layer. Salomé had herself wrapped in seven veils in order to prolong her unveiling.

Even more effective than adding up identical layers is the heightening of the contrast between the layers. The introduction of a layer of underwear ensues a kind of reciprocal specialisation: the more transparent and intimating the underwear, the more concealing the outerwear. Such specialisation also affects texture - the softer the undergarment, the rougher the outerwear. Fabric itself comes to be reallocated. Whereas hand-made lace used to be an outer adornment, machine-made lace has become a favourite for underwear (Hollander). The same is true for lace and satin. Furthermore, where the task of revealing the body's contours is relegated to underwear, every other layer has to hint at the presence and reveal the nature of the next. Preferably, underwear peeks out from beneath an outer layer, such as the cuffs of sleeves, or the ribbons or the edges of the bra. In the same vein, the outline of the underwear may appear through semi-transparent fabric, or its relief may show through a tight-fitting dress.

The more specialised the layers, the greater their propensity to become an autonomous component with increasing internal specialisation and organisation. The chemise, for centuries the sole basic undergarment for all European women (Hollander) has been gradually replaced with lingerie consisting of many parts: underpants, garter belts, corsets and bras.

The more specialised a layer, the greater its specific appeal and the greater its autonomy. Undressing develops into a continuous metamorphosis. In every stage of its unfolding, a new erotic appearance with its own merits is revealed. Far from merely referring to the next stage of undressing, every intermediate appearance tries to substitute its own splendour to the detriment of the next stage. That is most apparent in the appeal of that new kind of intermediary stage between clad and nude: the body clad in a swimsuit or lingerie:

konrad gös

The habitual presence of underwear also allows for more sophistication in the techniques of unveiling. To begin with, new forms of undressing emerge: the revealing of the underwear under the outerwear

and the revealing of the body under the lingerie:

didier perreau


But also other refined ways of heightening the erotic tension emerge. A kind of shortcut can be achieved when a naked body shows up where an intermediate of underclothing was expected:


dirk lakomy



This type of shortcut not only pleases the erotic eye, but foremost its nude. There is a special thrill in wearing a garment over naked breasts or walking around in a skirt without a slip underneath, or - in sharpening the contrast even further - appearing completely naked underneath a thick fur coat, formal attire, or heavy working apparel.


But there is more. Although clothes hide nudity from view, they cannot but court the shapes of the body. Here is another way in which concealing can be transformed into a refined way of revealing. Already draped dress produces a contrast between the fall of the folds and the undulations that show through.

alain paris

To accentuate such contrast, the wearer my have the wind blow against his body or water make the fabric cling to it, (Grecia)

More efficient is cutting up the fabric so that it comes to court more intimately the shape of the body.

dominique lefort

The desire to lay eyes upon what is concealed can become so urgent that even cutting up does not suffice.Additional elasticity makes the dress perfectly court the undulations of the body that was supposed to conceal, as with tight-knitted dresses, nylon stockings and latex:

The covering is shortcut altogether when the fabric itself is transparent:

konrad gös

bogdan zwir

or when the surface shrinks into a mere ribbon or strings:

patrick wecksteen

A most alluring effect is achieved when the body is naked but nevertheless covered with paint:


Finally, a pure reminder of clothes has to suffice: think of the white imprints of articles of clothing on a body that has been exposed to the sun:

craig morey

martin boelt


‘Puis, elle faisait d’un seul geste tomber l’ensemble de ses vêtements’
Flaubert, Emma Bovary.

Exciting though garments can be, dressing cannot be an end in itself. There is no purpose in heightening the appeal of the body when it is no longer revealed. Getting dressed is only a prelude to,
if not a means of postponing the forthcoming denudation. The ultimate destiny of clothes is to be laid off.

That becomes all too obvious when we compare clothes with the whole array of other artificial means to enhance the erotic appeal, such as make-up, epilating and shaving, cosmetic surgery, the use of all kind of prostheses, wigs, false eyelashes, and what have you. Although these devices are often put on the same footing as clothing, we are dealing with totally different phenomena. To be sure, some of these artifices can be laid off like clothes: think of make-up, a set of dentures or a wig. But their removal only lays bare hidden shortcomings instead of hidden charms. The difference is between objectively adding to the beauty or concealing shortcomings on the one hand, and subjectively increasing the erotic appeal on the other hand.

That is already apparent from the structure of clothes itself, which is determined by the ease with which they are laid off. The charm of well-fitting trousers resides in opening the zipper, the charm of a blouse in its unbuttoning, the secret of the corset in its unlacing, the appeal of the bra in its undoing.

bruce talbot

One could write a whole erotica on zippers, buttons, hooks, ribbons and laces:

renata ratajczyk

And there is a whole array of refined, nearly concealed tricks of seduction, from unawares letting glide a ribbon over the shoulder, over leaving one or more buttons undone or a zipper open, to leaving the collar unbuttoned to show some chest, and what have you. Such seeming dishevelment betrays an overall readiness or helps to conjure it up:

ernesto timor

However much al these refinements may stir the erotic eye, nothing compares to the beauty of its nude when finally uncovered.And that holds especially when it is stripped of a transparent veil:

jacek pomykalski


‘L’homme nu est un mollusque’



Although clothing is a sophisticated method of seduction, it often serves the opposite goal of creating deceit, by suggesting that there is something more or better than what actually exists. Worse still, clothing can even compensate for, or mask an inability - if not an unconscious unwillingness - of the body to display itself in the nude. In fact, garments can be disposed of at will, whereas a genuine willingness arises only where there is a reciprocal attraction and a readiness to engage in a more encompassing relationship. Erotic attire may only advertise an apparent readiness, as opposed to a complete willingness. This attitude is quite common under the regime of differential beauty, where many a beauty flaunts her appeal, without being prepared to disappear in the marital bed, let alone the childbed. Such purely exhibitionistic attitude is epitomised in the model with whom an increasing number of women identify themselves. The model specialises in displaying her body before a host of admirers, whose very number structurally prevents them from ever gaining access to her body. Inevitably, the staging of seduction is transformed into a mere performance of exhibitionism on the catwalk.

Even accomplished stripping may be diverted from its true destiny. This occurs when it becomes a mere substitute for complete seduction by the eventually denudated body. In granting the nude, stripping withholds intercourse. Unveiling - and solely unveiling - has become the crux of its pleasure, and the spell is broken when the last veil has fallen. This attitude is quite common in every day life - on beaches and at parties - but it comes to its apogee in staged performances such as the belly dance and the strip tease, not to mention photographic images of a nude. Just as in the performance of the model on the catwalk, the performance of the stripper is doomed to be reduced to mere exhibitionism. This is evident in the highly ritualised, theatrical quality of the performance in which touching - and in classic striptease showing the genitalia - is excluded.

Thus, voyeurism and exhibitionism are further isolated from the tactile and genital sequel of visual seduction. Their increasing autonomy finds its counterpart in the gradual shift form body to clothes. Not for nothing does many a man prefer a half-clad body or a body in full erotic attire - it might utterly fail when it finally surrenders. Genuine display as the expression of an unlimited willingness to surrender, may be just as rare as a perfect body.

No wonder that it is often proclaimed that erotic appeal derives not from the body, but from the body clad or from its unveiling. The contention is only justified when the nude is not able or prepared to hold its promise. We cannot escape the impression that the emphasis on the envelope is merely a new manifestation of the age-old contempt for the body: from Tertullianus' 'templum aedificatum super cloacam’, over Baudelaire's make-up, Merleau-Ponty's 'chair', Clark's 'sack of potatoes' to Lacan's body as a mollusc.

That does not prevent that matters can be looked at more positively. Clothes maintain the illusion that it is they that make the man or the woman. In expectance of a generalised genetic manipulation of bodily beauty - they may thus serve the egalitarian purpose (Alain). They help to flatten the differences in beauty and help to tip the balance in favour of the lesser beauties, as in the story of Cinderella - even when this fairy-tale learns that real beauty will always win at last.....

© Stefan Beyst, december 2003

From the same author:
'the ecstasies of eros'

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waclaw wantuch gabriele rigon craig morey
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