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Ancient Greeks, for example, were obviously very comfortable with nudity, as reflected in a lot of their art. On the other hand, Islamic cultures value modesty much more. And of course there are countless other cultures that range in between.

Why does this happen? One of my guesses would be temperatures, that if it's warmer in a place they would be more comfortable wearing less clothing, but isn't it warmer in the middle east than in Greece?

Another factor that I thought about was religion, as Greek mythology was often more crude than the Islamic stories. But are the cultures more modest because their stories are more modest or is it vice versa? Are there other factors that weigh in that I didn't mention?

I suppose by "modesty" I mean the extent that the culture is comfortable with exposed bodies. Greeks, for example, made plenty of statues and pieces of art of naked people, but Islamic cultures emphasize more modest, concealing clothing and dress.

I chose the examples of Greek and Islamic cultures because they were the first ones that came to mind. Sorry if I said something incorrect. I'm very curious about this topic and eager to hear what you have to say.

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    The explanation of these differences lies in the religion. It is religion which imposes on people this notion of "modesty". – Alex Feb 13 at 0:59
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    @Gort the Robot: At least in the US, that's because the mostly-Christian majority has enacted laws against public nudity. I dare say if you did a religious survey at a nude beach, you would find many atheists & agnostics (and pagans &c), and few conservative Christians :-) – jamesqf Feb 13 at 17:17
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    My Professional Historian Girlfriend points out that body modesty is relative - measured in the context of your own. I'd suggest that Japanese culture be included in the mix - where the "immodest" areas are different than our own. – Mark C. Wallace Feb 14 at 19:12
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This is completely hypothetical and quite a bit of guesswork, but around the world you can find examples how fashion or beauty ideals are derived from the lifestyles of the elites. E.g. sun tanning in pre- or post-industrialization Europe or in China, foot binding in China, changing ideals re. body figures etc.

In most cultures, nakedness (esp. partial male nakedness) will be associated with hard work, which automatically counts against it (e.g. Ancient Rome, European middle ages, 19th century Japan, socialist propaganda). Greece was somewhat special insofar as athletics were important enough to even be considered sacred. In athletics it is often better to wear less, and so nakedness may have come to appear less plebeian and more elitist. This article makes a similar point, but also adds some other aspects.

One common feature of elite lifestyles around the world is that women are not expected to work. For the Middle East, this means they can spend most of their time at home, protected from the sun and dust of the streets. If women did venture out of their houses, they would be expected to protect themselves from sun and dust by wearing veils and head scarfs etc. Clothes that are somewhat impractical when you are supposed to do real work in hot weather.

This covering up is not restricted to Islamic countries - farmers working in the fields in Europe used to wear head scarfs until a few decades ago. Female street sweepers in China definitely also tend to cover their hair and faces a lot. The difference to the Middle East is that farming and street sweeping are really lower-class occupations and that upper-class women would not need to protect their hair from getting dusty because they could quite easily avoid dusty conditions altogether.

But also see this wikipedia article which describes the veil's function in pre-Islamic societies much more in terms of social status rather than in terms of any practical usefulness.


That said, a few examples for not-so-modest Islamic art are the Arabian Nights, a statue from Hisham's palace in Jericho, or certain frescoes at the Chehel Sotun palace in Esfahan.

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  • "In most cultures, nakedness (esp. male nakedness) will be associated with hard work" You're right, that is completely hypothetical and guesswork. – Jos Feb 12 at 23:44
  • @Jos examples added. – Jan Feb 13 at 0:18
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    I would challenge the idea that nakedness is associated with hard work. To the contrary, at least in recent to modern times one dons protective clothing when doing most kinds of physical work. See e.g. overalls en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overalls or remember that the now-ubiquitous blue jeans were originally protective clothing for miners in the California Gold Rush. – jamesqf Feb 13 at 17:21
  • @jamesqf When I grew up, a naked upper body was a very working-class thing. Only common among lorry drivers, construction workers and the like. Except around bodies of water. Ofc. rules about protective equipment on construction sites have become stricter and lorries have become airconditioned, so this is much less common now. – Jan Feb 13 at 17:49
  • @Jan: I wouldn't call driving a lorry hard work, and seldom if ever see topless truck drivers in the US. Likewise with topless construction workers - and I've been a construction worker. May be geographic differences: what would be ok in Britain (which I'm assuming from your use of "lorry") would set you up for serious sunburn in much of the western US. – jamesqf Feb 14 at 3:07

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