Skip navigation and go to main content

What's the deal with 'naked savages'?

What I find frustrating is the way some people from cultures originating in temperate regions judge the cultures of people in tropical or equatorial regions. They equate fewer layers of clothing with a lack of 'civilization'. For instance, an elderly Chinese man once told me that people from some countries wear little clothing because they were not 'advanced'. He believes that the more flesh people in a given society expose on a regular basis, the more "primitive" they are, with our naked human ancestors at the furthest end of the spectrum. I don't know about that. Let's take the Americas for example. The Inuit live as hunter-gatherers and they are covered in thick clothing from head to toe, for obvious reasons. In realms much further south, the Maya, Aztec and Inca civilizations developed sophisticated social and material cultures. They built great empires with complex models for political organization, something the Inuit and other peoples of the Artic did not do. Mayans, Incas and Aztecs are generally considered to be far more "advanced" than the Inuit and other northern peoples. And yet they wore a lot less clothing then the Inuit. After all, it can get pretty hot in Central and South America. So perhaps, the reason behind how much clothing people wear is climate, not the lack of 'civilization', if 'civilization' can even be measured.

A woman from India also said a similar thing to me: she said the custom of women in some parts of Africa to go about bare-breasted is "primitive" and "weird". I don't know if she remembered that Indian women went topless in ancient times, during a period when Indian civilizations were culturally and materially sophisticated. Perhaps not covering certain body parts is a matter of cultural convention, and has nothing to do with how 'civilized' a society is?

It might be understandable that people find an unfamiliar practice "weird". After all, Ibn Battuta, a 15th century North African who visited the Mali Empire in West Africa, also had some things to say about the sight of naked women: "among their bad customs is the way women will go ... naked , without any covering, and the nakedness of the sultan's daughters - on the night of the 27th of Ramadan, I saw about 100 slave girls coming out of his palace with food, with them were two of his daughters, they had full breasts and no clothes on."1

But does 'weird' necessarily mean 'primitive'? Ibn Battuta also praised the men of the Mali empire for their diligence in washing their clothes so that they have "good white clothes" for Friday service, and, in another unrelated anecdote, he described a handsome young student dressed in "fine clothes".2 Clearly, Ibn Battuta didn't see the people of Mali as naked savages. The men and women live in the same civilization - women cannot be more 'primitive' than men in the same society. It appears the surface area of the body covered by clothing cannot be used to measure the level of 'civilization' at least in this case.

Europeans and Euro-Americans have similar ideas concerning body covering too. European missionaries have often tried to get "naked savages" to adopt European dress. When a native of a warm region starts dressing in inappropriately hot European clothing, the missionaries rejoice in their "success" at introducing "Western civilization".

This "more clothes is better" attitude can have a more sinister expression. In the 1930s, a white judge in the US was railing against Filipino men dating white women - he stated that Filipinos were "little brown monkeys", who not so long ago, were "running around in breechclothes". Are Filipinos as primitive as the whites make them out to be? Is wearing a breechcloth a sign of primitivism?

Indeed, the medieval Filipinos chose to wear pretty little. Here is a description of 16th century Filipino attire as seen by Spanish visitors:

...Spaniards kept reporting gold jewelry in truly astonishing quantities. They were struck not only by its amount and wide distribution, but by the fact that it appeared to be part of the normal attire of persons otherwise almost naked. A Samar datu by the name of Iberein was rowed out to a Spanish vesel anchored in this habor in 1543 by oarsmaen collared in gold; while wearing on his own person earrings and chains, which Bernardo de la Torre estimated to be worth more than a thousand pesos, and little else.3

If we are to judge Filipino civilization by the amount of clothing these people wore, we would also have to ask ourselves if a 'primitive' people would possess the technology and artistry to produce vast quantities of goldwork "which certainly rank among the world's most exquisite."4

Climate as well as culture influenced fashion choices for inhabitants of the Philippines in medieval times:

  • Men wore tattoos as symbols of valor: They were applied only after a man had performed in battle with fitting courage and, like modern military decorations, they accumulated with additional feats.5 Therefore, a man would wear little more than a loincloth in order to expose as many of his tattoos as possible.
  • Bare-chested exposure to the elements were a matter of masculine pride, and only old men would wear tunics to protect themselves from insects and temperature changes.6

Regardless of what we think of the aesthetics of 'too much' or 'too little' clothing, we have to recognize that fashion is determined by aestethics and practical considerations and is not a measure of 'civilization'.



1 Said Hamdun and Noel King, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, 59

2 Hamdun and King, 59-58

3 William Henry Scott, Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society, p32

4 ibid

5 Scott, p20

6 Scott, p29