A short critique of ‘Dress, Law and Naked Truth’ by Prof. Gary Watt
By Duncan Heenan
I read this book, having been lured to do so by the title which I thought may be of relevance to the campaigning aspects of naturism, and having done so, I record here a few personal reflections. The author is Professor of Law at Warwick University, and was named as Law Teacher of the Year in 2009.
The book is more about Dress than Law, and is based on Watt’s premise that “Dress is Law, and Law is Dress”. This is a summary of his belief that dress performs a number of functions, without which civilised society and the rule of law could not operate, and also that The Law is opaque, compromising and performs many of the functions of dress when seeking ‘the truth’. It is more a book of personal philosophy than Law, and very little is said about actual Law as a layman might understand it. Rather, he treats the custom and practice of society as if it were Law, possibly because society’s mores are sometimes enshrined in Law.
In the first chapter Watt develops his argument that ‘Dress is Law and Law is Dress’. In a nutshell, he argues that people have developed the habit of wearing clothes not only for practical reasons, but also as a way of enhancing their appearance and status; and that these functions are so important to the workings of society, that society has come to rely on clothing as part of the things which hold it together and make it work. He makes the false statement “The letter of the law requires us to dress in public places…”, which may be true for some jurisdictions, but certainly not all and not in England where the book is published. Though his arguments regarding the widespread habit of dressing may apply to the majority, he ignores the significant minority of people who have seen through the falsity of dress and fashion and who have discovered the freedom of mind and society which nakedness brings. His argument also says that people mostly dress because they want to, with little recognition that an unguessable number do so simply due to the social and regulatory pressure to conform. Watt considers conforming to society’s norms to be desirable to the point where it should be required. He considers compromise and ‘fitting in’ with the majority view to be essential to society, and though, later, he leaves room for toleration of minority departures from dress norms (such as the wearing of veils & burkas) this ‘toleration’ does not include any latitude regarding public nudity, even though he produces no argument, let alone evidence, that this would be harmful.
Apart from the comfort and convenience of nudity, social nudity dispenses with the artificial messages delivered by clothing, and though some may find this makes them feel vulnerable, naturists find it liberating and truthful. Watt does not explore this phenomenon nor even acknowledge that it exists. Whether this is by design or omission I can not guess, but to those who have experienced it, it knocks away the foundation of many of Watts’ arguments. The social camouflage which attracts him to clothing is what naturists find false, and reject.
Chapter two is a history of dress, dress codes and the social impact of dress. It starts with the unexplained assumption that there is an ‘…innate human predisposition to dress’. Naturists will know this is not a universal ‘predisposition’, and indeed does not apply to any small child, who are usually happy in the nude (if warm enough), until their parents’ habit of dressing them becomes ingrained to the point where it is not questioned, and so carried over from generation to generation. Watt acknowledges this truth, but blindly accepts that social conditioning is the norm, and therefore ‘right’ for society. Adults who have discovered that this ‘predisposition’ is in fact just social conditioning, and have experienced the pleasure of dispensing with clothing when comfortable to do so are not much acknowledged in this text, and their omission is a subtle, possibly even unconscious, piece of tunnel vision by the author. Where public nudity is mentioned, it is dismissed as breaking the conventions, and therefore bad for society, and therefore in some undefined way ‘wrong’.
The actual history described may be of interest to social scientists, but the parallels drawn with law seem tenuous and whimsical.
In the third chapter, Watt dwells on Shakespeare and the folklore of military dress and armour, drawing parallels both in language and meaning between that and the judicial process of proof. This could be interesting to a scholar of such things but is esoteric, and of little relevance to the layman or naturist, or even the practicing lawyer.
As part of this he confirms what many laymen know, that the courts are interested in finding an acceptable (to them) verdict rather than what is necessarily the truth. He contends that just as clothing transforms appearance to something acceptable to particular circumstances, so the presentation of evidence and testimony in court is used, not to uncover the truth, but to dress it up so as to produce a conclusion which the court can live with. He seems to favour a degree of compromise in judicial decisions. This may explain why many judges are antipathetic to jury trials, which reduce their room for manoeuvre and their authority.
Chapter four is a long exposition on the history, customs, meaning and ‘importance’ of dress in the judicial world, and possibly helps explain the mindset of judges, who seem to feel that particular clothing is an essential part of an individual’s social & professional persona, to the point where, if clothing conventions are cast aside, authority is threatened. This could be why cases of naturism often seem to be prejudged, without the police or judges even being aware that they are doing it. Because police and judges apply the law, in practice to a large degree they actually make it. It is little wonder therefore, that a profession which places such store on dressing alike and judging and being judged by appearance, should be so disconcerted by naturists who have no time for such artifice.
In chapter five, the two extremes of clothing are considered – nakedness and ‘the Veil’.
I was disappointed that the subject of public nudity was given fairly short shrift, discussion centring mostly on Steve Gough. Watt correctly concludes that Gough’s long incarcerations are more because he has challenged the authority of the Court, than that he has done any harm in the real world. However, he supports the position of the judiciary in insisting that their view of what is right and wrong where nudity is concerned must be upheld; not because it is necessarily correct, but because they are The Judges and their view must not be challenged. To question a judge’s judgment is like saying the Emperor has no clothes, even when he is obviously naked.
The discussion of the Veil and obscuring the face generally is an odd contrast, and somewhat inconsistent with Watt’s generally antagonistic view of public nudity. He concludes that society should accommodate people who want to obscure their identity, even though there are practical arguments against it. I could find no basic distinction argued, in the terms of minority rights, between nudity and the Veil. Here Watt displays the archetypical judicial mindset in concluding that something is right because it’s his book so he can decide; just as a judge might say ‘it is my court, so I will decide’. Authority is its own argument, in the way a parent will justify their decisions to a child by saying “… because I’m your mother. Just do it”.
Chapter six is a summing up of conclusions. In it Watt discusses how fashions and conventions of dress change over time. He concludes that revolution in dress is not generally accepted by society, and should not be, as it is destabilising. He favours a slow evolutionary approach, which is in line with his general view of what leads to a conforming, settled, peaceful society. His implication is also that law must evolve slowly. This is of course based on his assumption that people want, or should want, a conforming settled and peaceful society. He ignores revolutionary Law, such as the legalisation of homosexuality, which recognised that society was disobeying the law anyway, and so changed the law, making something which was imprisonable one day almost fashionable the next. Society did not collapse. It adapted, and concluded that no real harm was being done, so the affront to those with inflexible attitudes could be safely ignored.
In reflecting on this book, I was left asking the question why did Watt write it? It is certainly not a Law book, neither is it an unbiased history of fashion or clothing. Just as a designer weaves his own pattern in to a garment, Watt has weaved his own views, prejudices and assumptions in to the text in a subtle way. Often he states opinion as fact, and makes underlying assumptions without even trying to justify them. It is not a book for a law student, nor even for a fashion designer. If it is aimed at Sociologists or Social Psychologists it fails because it lacks academic rigour. I had to conclude that it was written as a piece of self-indulgence by someone who just wanted the world to know what he thought about a rather rambling series of subjects, joined together by some farfetched and unproven connections. I can not object to someone expressing an opinion, but where this book is dangerous is that he seems to expect the reader to believe and accept what he says. In this I do not mean the descriptions of the way things are, but the insidious insistence that this is the way things should be. It is preaching dressed as teaching.
Watt does not seem to favour change other than extremely slow and minor adjustment to clothing. Regarding public nudity, he does not seem to allow that it should happen at all, on the ground that ‘it never has so it never shall’. To the naturist, change has to happen at some stage or he/she will never find full acceptance of that lifestyle, which is provably harmless and healthy, even if it may not appeal to everyone. The evolutionary moves towards nudity may be argued…full length bathing suits, to high cut one pieces, to bikinis, and so on. But full exposure of the whole body including the breasts and genitals seems to be a sticking point, and classed as ‘revolution’, and therefore somehow destabilising to society and challenging to the Law. This book upholds that sticking point, and is therefore something that naturists should not accept, even if it is written by a Professor of Law. Ultimately Law should reflect public opinion, not the other way around; and judges should acknowledge that process, not oppose it. In social matters what is right, is what we think is right, not what we are told is right.
© Duncan Heenan 2015