see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'

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Chapter VI of ‘The erotic eye and its nude’

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'J'aime le souvenir de ces époques nues''
Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal,Correspondances,V.

Dress not only widens the repertoire of concealing and revealing, it also changes the overall appearance of the erotic appearance itself. Draped clothes synthesise the body into one whole, from which only the head and the arms protrude. Tailored clothing shows all the separate parts, although a skirt might synthesise the thighs and the legs into one single whole:

steve diet goedde

The cut may change the shape of the parts: trousers and sleeves, shirts and jackets may be wide or tight-cut. The cut has also its impact on the mutual relation of the parts: the girdle may be under the breast, over the middle or over the thighs. Just like a close-up, clothes draw the attention on different parts of the body.

So does men exchange his natural appearance with an increasing diversity of often totally opposed profiles. It suffices to have the typical silhouettes from diverse places and different periods pass the review, to become aware of that phenomenon.

bruce talbot

milton montenegro

That goes not only for the shape of the body, but equally for its movements. The movements of the body are totally different when it is clothed in draped or tailored clothing, a tight-fitting dress or trousers, wearing high heels (or having bound feet) or slippers. An attribute like a plume or a cigarette mouthpiece drastically changes the overall attitude and dictates new movements (P. Schilder).

Precisely because clothes tend to confine the natural agility of the body, their removal often leads to an outburst of energy: the liberated body frolics around or stretches its limbs triumphantly:

walter bosque

norm edwards


There is a natural ‘transsexuality’ in the sense that characteristics which, in a given culture, are supposed to be male or female, tend to be rather randomly distributed over genetically male of female beings. Far from harming the appeal of the body, such natural ambivalence often only heightens its charms, as in that wonderful photo of Christopher John Ball:


A rigid opposition between male and female dress (and other means of adorning the body, such as make-up and jewellery) helps to remove the ambivalence. An impressive example is the strong opposition of male nudity and the richly draped female body in ancient Greece:

Nowadays, we are still familiar with the opposition of trousers and skirts:

giorgio rigon

Up to the nineteenth century, the opposition extended to underwear: women used to wear long smocks, and it is only from the middle of the nineteenth century onward that specialised underwear was introduced. Today, make-up is still a female privilege, in strong contrast to the eighteenth century. There are countless other examples …

Garments can also enhance the natural ambivalence. As women have always known, male garment only comes to enhance female attractiveness:


This is all the more so when what seemed to be a man turns out to be a woman:

marlene dietrich



Floris Andréa managed to develop an intriguing variant on this theme:

floris andréa

This leads to a continuous reciprocal annexation of the privileges of the opposite sex. Eventually, the surplus gained from the annexation dwindles: women wearing trousers have become so common, that we no longer notice the anomaly.

Especially when there is a sufficient initial natural ambivalence, the wearing of clothes of the opposite sex can become a means of acquiring a new body. Male transvestism is foremost fuelled by exhibitionistic motives. Under the regime of the exchange of beauty for benefits, man is doomed to forever admire female beauty, while his own body is left in the cold, how beautiful it might be. How much apparel makes the (wo)man is apparent from the photos below:

tina cassati

valéry bareta


Female transvestism is not restricted to clothes and attributes and is not exclusively fuelled by erotic motives. The body is increasingly masculinised. As a consequence of diets and the avoidance of pregnancy and breastfeeding, the slender, muscled body of the girl is gradually replacing the mature female or maternal body. In opposition to the maternal body, the girlish look can also be read as ‘male’ (‘boyish’). Conversely, the body of the young boy shows up many female characteristics. In the limit, both genders meet one another in the quasi hermaphrodite body of the adolescent.

Increasingly, the desired effects are obtained through surgical, hormonal and genetic manipulation. Up to now, they are quite impressive with the male, who can acquire often magnificent breasts. But there is no doubt: in the future we surely will witness still more amazing miracles.

Finally, clothes and other artificial interventions remove every sexual difference: we get to see a sexless being, like the angels of olden times (Claude Cahun).


Clothes deprive the erotic eye of the sight of its nude. No wonder that it wants to regain that paradise lost. We already mentioned how changes in the scheme of denudation tend to surrender the zones previously covered with garment, and how the covering of the nude is short-circuited through transparency.

But there is more. The whole scheme of concealing and revealing is centred around the genitals. In that centre originates the centrifugal quest for more aesthetic and less anxiety-arousing substitutes. In progressively covering the body, clothes come to endorse that move: in hiding the centre from view, they all the more feed the desire to find the becoming substitutes. And since clothes come to cover not only the genitals, but other, more attractive parts of the body as well, also these begin to displace themselves.

In the first place the parts left nude are obvious magnets for the hidden treasures. In chapter III we already provided ample illustration of centrifugal displacement of the genitals. Here, we only have to add that the characteristics of the host parts are often read as indicators of the characteristics of the originals: as when the length of the nose is supposed to indicate the length of the penis, or the shape of the foot that of vagina (China).

But also the clothes themselves are eager to welcome the banned genitals. They show up many formal or functional similarities or analogies, and where these are missing, they are often introduced in view of that function. The most important substitute is underwear. Due to the reciprocal specialisation between the layers, underwear preferably takes the function of intimating nudity. That is why it often imitates the evenness of the skin and why it preferably courts the shapes of the body. Not seldom does it also take the colour of the skin or enhance it through contrast. That goes especially for the more archaic parts, which can easily be aestheticised by clothing. Thus, the shape of the (slip, panties) echoes the triangle of the mound of Venus, while at the same does replacing the pubic hair and the mucous skin through shining cloth:


Also and especially the outer layers imitate the body. The more they refer their intimating function to the inner layers, the more do the eyes feel deprived, and the stronger are the outer layers driven to resemble what they are supposed to conceal. It is not difficult to understand why the disappearance of the vulva celebrates its resurrection in the folds of drapery, in collars or cuts in sleeves, stockings, jackets and coats:

manuel laval

della francesca

Why the pubic hair resurges as fur, preferably at the fringe of collars, cuts and openings:


claus rose

oscar brunet

Why the breasts reappear as cups and the nipples as buttons, why the thighs or the hips are accentuated in crinolines:

emil schildt

Why the hidden skin resurfaces as silk, leather or latex:

steve diet goedde

The trend is completed in the creations of Alba d'Urbano whose dresses show the naked body that they were supposed to hide.

Also with the male do hats enlarge the head, puff sleeves intimate the volume of muscle, and epaulettes augment the width of the chest:

titian charles V

The hidden beauty resurfaces even in the armour destined to protect it in battle, as in the muscled cuirass, cherished from the Greeks onward:

augustus (prima porta)

Especially shoes are destined to embody the penis. In that capacity they have not failed to play their secret game under many a table (Think of the ‘poulaines’, introduced by Fulk Rechin of Anjou in the eleventh century):

The effect of displacement is often so drastic, that the central parts are more easily denudated than the displaced ones: think of the Chinese, who have rather denudate the breasts or the vagina than the feet, or of the stripper and her high-heeled shoes.


In the previous chapter, we already described how the body is wrapped in ever more layers. The intermediate layers can take the place of the ultimate goal: the nude. The erotic eye’s quest is then diverted to a new goal: laying eyes upon the underwear. The corresponding change in display of beauty is the exhibition of underwear. A stylised form of this new kind of display appears as soon as the French can-can (Toulouse Luatrec). Thus is born one of the most elementary forms of a new kind of fetishism:

giuseppe sarcinella


This elementary form of fetisjism can also ignate at further stages of denudation:

mariano rodriguez

This new form of fetishism is further developed in that clothes postpone the transition to tactile and genital contact and thus tend to reinforce a voyeuristic stand. Since clothes also happen to offer more aesthetic substitutes (in the clothes themselves, as well in the parts of the body left nude) they threaten to turn postponement into cancellation. The admired body is no longer tactilely or genitally aroused: the potential lover is reduced to a voyeur. And that is all the more true, since the admired body has become a body dressed. The display of the body is increasingly replaced with the display of clothes, especially since dress tends to offer fascinating substitutes for the sense of touch and the genitalia. This culminates in the catwalk and its less profane counterpart in the church: the wedding dress in which the bride appears before the altar. The eyes’ seizure of power leads to an increasing desire to lay eyes upon the nude body that goes hidden behind the clothes:

More often though, the eye’s seizure of power leads to the disappearance of signs of tactile and genital arousal, that the eye wants so eagerly to see. That cannot but reinforce the propensity to project the excluded organ of the voyeur on the body of the exhibitionist, a phenomenon that is already familiar to us from chapter III. Also for this projection does the body dressed offer the required clues.

In a first phase clothes intensify the appeal of the parts left nude. The attention is not restricted to the face, which, in an uncovered body, is the natural entrance gate to the sanctuary. As soon as the hem reaches to the ground, toes, feet, ankles, knees and thighs impose themselves as new stops on the path leading to the centre. Sleeves and gloves disclose a new sideward entranceway: the removal of – especially long – gloves, or of sleeves lays bare the charms of fingers, hands, wrists, arms and shoulders (Emma Bovary). And, finally, there is also the dorsal approach of the back, which naturally hides the charms on the front from view, and thus can be denudated at lesser risks.

In a second phase, the new entranceways offer new clues for the centrifugal movement and the projection of the genitals. Whereas, on the downward path, only natural fetishes of an obvious female nature are to be found, on the sideward and upward pathways, we find an abundance of phallic forms: arms and legs, fingers and toes. Such phallic profusion asks for female envelopes: stockings, gloves, and shoes.

But also the clothes themselves offer plenty of clues for the staging of the hermaphrodite drama.

In general, the wearing of clothes accentuates one or another part of the body. The exclusive focus on the one part among countless others, betrays the central origin of such a fetish.

The displacement to the parts left uncovered goes often hand in hand with the displacement to dress. The most obvious example is the point of the foot penetrating the hollow of the shoe, which ends itself in a point and is armed with a high heel at that. The movement is continued when the high-heeled shoe develops into a boot with bootlaces or a fur collar. A veritable escalation, whereby male and female genitals unleash one another as in a chain reaction!

Also the body of the male, which in its natural state provides only scarce clues, is turned into a playground for displacement and projection when dressed. At last the vagina can nestle in the male body at random. Impressive examples are the details of the painting of Caravaggio and Schad below:


christian schad

Especially collars and splits play an important role:

van dyck


Things come to their apogee in the fly from which the penis protrudes.

Also the tactile qualities and smells of clothes offer many a clue for the game of displacement and projection. Not seldom does the fabric of clothes surpass not only the evenness, but also other qualities of the skin: think of the feel of silk, satin, fur or the sight of latex. In the end, the ‘second skin’ is turned into the ‘first skin’:

steve diet goedde

Optic and tactile qualities are often intertwined. Thus, silk not seldom shares its colour with the labia minora, and reminds in any case of its evenness, without being slimy. Therefore, silk is equally an example of displacement for aesthetics sake, just like fingernails. The same goes for fur, which cannot fail to remind of the pubic hair. Also smells join the fetishist feast. Leather, which is hairless like the female body, is also cherished for its smell (not to mention its sadistic overtones). And that goes especially for shoes, which combine the smell of leather with those of the foot.

The sometimes subtle displacements from diverse sources are often intertwined in an eventually inextricable jumble. Here originates the very fascination of many a fetish, and the mystery as well. It is not difficult to understand why one should be aroused by the sight of half-parted lips. Already more difficult is it to understand why one might be mesmerised by the sight of a leg. But it is only when one is rapt in ecstasy when touching a piece of silk, or at the sight of a body laced up, that we have to summon up all our interpretative powers.

Things are further complicated in that pieces of cloth may be isolated from the body from which they derive their appeal. Especially in such cases do the displacements of erotic appearance take the shape of a veritable ‘fetish’. Which does not prevent that the phenomenon can only be understood when we take the more obvious preparatory stages into account.

Magritte highlights the fetish-character of clothes through letting the body reappear in the clothes left behind (Le modèle rouge', Philosophie dans le boudoir). Nicole Tran ba Vang makes an intelligent variation on that theme:

nicole tran ba vang

Through their propensity to usurp the erotic appeal of the body, clothes come to play an increasingly important role in erotic life. Since clothes can be disposed of at will, any desiring body can adorn itself with the charms of the desired body – also the less desirable body, or the body that is not prepared to surrender. In the end, the desired body itself becomes obsolete. Such depersonalisation and objectification of original the erotic appearance is all the more welcome under the regime of differential beauty and the exchange of beauty for benefits. Under such regime, many a real person is no longer prepared to engage in a more encompassing personal relationship, whereas a fetish can be bought and possessed at will.

At the same time, the objectification and the visualisation allow for an unlimited enjoyment. Unlike genital intercourse, the relation with a fetish has no inbuilt end. A fetishist can denudate and wash the feet of his beloved, perfume it and kiss it for hours. And that holds all the more true for shoes. And such enjoyment is not only unlimited, no obstacles whatsoever can spoil the fun: a shoe cannot possibly be a source of troubles….


The fetishist displacement comes to its apogee when it courts the reversal of the normal scheme of denudation (see previous chapter): when the erotic charge is displaced to garment in the periphery, its appeal can be contrasted with the nudity of the body, especially of its central parts.

In a first phase the central opening in the nude is covered by other parts of the body itself, wherheby the centrifugal move is accentuated through the hair and the covering of the hannds and/or feet:

craig morey

markus richter

andy metal

But, in a second phase, the centrifugally displaced fetish is directed against the central origin which it negates:

giuseppe sarcinella

‘There is more to sex than intercourse…’

Also erotically neutral objects become entangled in the game of concealing and revealing. Originally, most jewellery serves the function of indicating rank, status, functions and other distinctions. Just like clothes, they divert the attention from the erotic appearance. Also flowers, textiles and jewellery worn for purely aesthetic reasons, compete with the beauty of the body. But precisely their erotic neutrality makes them function as an excuse: as when the expensive or splendid fabric of a dress becomes a pretext for admiring the wearer. The expensive jewel not only diverts the attention from the beautiful breasts between which it is hanging, it is also a pretext to catch a glimpse of those other treasures.


However erotically neutral it might be, through functioning as an advance, it becomes entangled in the game of concealing and revealing. Also tattoos or piercings have the same effect, especially when they are made on a part of the body that otherwise is not allowed to be uncovered in public:

cora chaos

But also - if not: especially - on the naked body, all kinds of props serve the purpose of aestheticisation (the aesthetic move). They spare the erotic eye the non-aesthetic and anxiety-provoking sight of the genitals and other unappetising parts such as the nipples, the openings in the nose and the ear, or the mouth:

alvaro rioseco

Or they divert the attention from the navel, which is already an aestheticised displacement of the vagina:



The attention may be diverted directly from the vagina: through the ring on the finger in the vicinity of the vagina, as in the photo of Ernesto Timor below:

ernesto timor

or by jewels or tattoos n its immediate vicinity:


eduardo segura

susan wayland

In the photos of Lee Stranahan en Manuel Laval below, the jewel in the lion’s den diverts the attention from the ugly flesh. Already in chapter V, we mentioned the fact that the fingernail is a negation of the slimy and wrinkled flesh, and that holds equally true of the shell in Laval:

lee stranahan

manuel laval

In another photo of Manuel Laval, it is obvious that the jewel in the central opening is altogether incapable of checking the centrifugal movement away from the genitals:

manuel laval

And that reminds us of the fact that the whole process can also be staged on the face:

mariano rodriguez


Garments are not only meant to give the onlooker an advance to the splendour of the nude, they can also give the wearer an advance to impending sexual gratification. Many a women enjoys the feel of loose, soft cloth working against their skin. Often this enjoyment can lead to overt self-caressing which is a theme often developed in erotic imagery. Conversely, tight-fitting clothes may be the source of a pleasure akin to bonding: in this case, clothes are replacing a lover in flesh and blood. Also the wearing of lingerie may produce a special sensation, even when – or precisely because – the wearer has no intention to unravel them before the eyes of strangers. The sheer awareness of being attractive or the pure idea of seduction may suffice. In these cases, pleasure is derived from looking at oneself – either through a kind of spiritual eye, through the real eye in the mirror, or through the vicarious gaze of a third party:

Such self-satisfaction is further developed when the fetishist uses clothes charged with the erotic appeal of the desired body. In wearing the clothes of the desired body, the desiring body is released from the task of projecting itself on the desired body. The understanding of this process is obscured by the fact that fetishism tends to obliterate the origin of the fetish in the desired body. The plumes, with which women are fond to adorn themselves, are derived from male birds. Fur - from way back a male prerogative (Emberley) – not only reminds of the pubis, but above all of the haired male body. Conversely hairless leather derives its charms foremost from the nudity of the female body. If we take the origins in the desired body into account, the differences between fetishism and transvestism tend to be blurred: while the fetishist originally projected his own desiring body on the desired body, he now can wrap himself in the very envelopes in which the desired body has incarnated itself. The fetishist, who wraps himself in silk underwear or in nude leather, tactilely enjoys the skin taken from the desired body. He thus becomes a transvestite who – with his mind’s eye, in the mirror, or through the eye of a third onlooker - enjoys the sight the desired body in his own.

This move is completed when he also masturbates himself with the fetish or with a hand replacing the vagina or a finger replacing the penis – even when lingering in the visual and tactile preliminary stages is far more becoming to both in essence visual perversions. We will come back to this in chapter X.

Thus, the desired body, denied to the voyeur by the perverse eye, is eventually reconstructed on the desiring body itself through a reversal in the mirror (transvestism), and through wrapping itself in the desired skin detached from the desired body (fetishism). In the end, the perverse eye, that in a first phase turned the poor mortal into a sexually individuated being – a being that refuses to let itself submerge into the animal with the two backs – eventually transforms that very sexually individuated being into the self-sufficient, divine hermaphrodite.

© Stefan Beyst, January 2004

From the same author:
'the ecstasies of eros'

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see also:

waclaw wantuch gabriele rigon craig morey
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Dictionary of Fashion

Nude Photographers