22 November 2010
State of the Loincloth: Can It Really Come Back If It Never Went Away?
No one really knows when the loincloth first appeared -- no one was keeping track apparently! Written history goes back about 5-6,000 years, and the loincloth has been there for the whole ride. One thing is certain, loincloths are cross-cultural, appearing throughout Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The one place where there is no real occurrence of loincloths, however, is northern Europe, where pants seem to have evolved (no doubt due to the cooler northern climate) independently. Perhaps this explains Westerners' fixation on the "exoticism" of loincloths, when in fact it is Western-style pants that were the global rarity?
The colonization of the world by northern Europe spread the religious ideals of guilt and shame to every society it encountered. Making a civilization ashamed of what they already have and desirous of what the interfering colonists possess is a very effective, two-pronged way to "open new markets," no doubt. The colonials absolved themselves of driving this wedge into existing social systems by cultivating an overgrown sense of piety and religious zeal; a veneer over their mercantile intent.
What was forgotten, in the process, was their own underlying erotic gaze -- their need to clothe their subjects to avoid the desires within themselves. In the land of shirtless women and loinclothed men, their own constructed cloak of virtue was at stake. Campaigns against indecency were launched -- the fundoshi, 1,000s of years old, showed bare buttocks, and the traders from the West ran the risk of becoming inflamed. That must have been an interesting conversation, considering language barriers and cultural differences! How different was all this than enforcing the wearing of the burqa by contemporary Islamic societies? How different than banning the Keffiyah in Palestine? The powerful imposed their own ideas of modesty and morality where none were needed. And in so many cases, the controversy flares over simple pieces of fabric!
As usual, the hypocrisies disintegrate quite easily under scrutiny.
One prominent, famous loincloth wearer appears in the Bible: Jesus. No doubt, it is while he is being crucified -- an excruciating death -- but it's a rare church wall that doesn't have an agonized, loincloth-clad Christ on its wall. This visual mix of dramatic male death is not uncommon in Western religion.
Another notable occurrence of the loincloth in Christianity is St. Sebastian, who was stripped of his clothes, tied to a tree, and shot with arrows, then left to bleed to death. St. Sebastian was so frequently depicted as a lithe, comely youth wrapped in a scrap of fabric that he became a sort of modern gay icon, and patron saint:
Certainly this has been noted, and Christendom has even, in its own blinkered way, unleashed loinclothed angels:
One reknowned historical loincloth-wearer was Mahatma Gandhi, who famously declared that if a man had but one piece of cloth to his name, he should wear it with dignity. Gandhi relinquished all his possessions and wore nothing but a dhoti, the Indian variant of the loincloth, for the rest of his life.
And of course this loincloth wearer is now governor of California:
Ancient Egypt, the Incas, The Mayans, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Romans, the Greeks, the Polynesians, the Japanese, Islanders of all types, Bushmen, Aboriginals, all had their own variety of the loincloth. None wore it with shame. Sniggers and giggles would have been unheard of.
Of course the loincloth has evolved in a few different directions, becoming both underwear and swimwear. What remains is its basic function (to contain the genitals, while not necessarily obscuring them) and its basic form (a band or belt around the waist -- elastic in most modern cases -- and enough coverage to visually blend the penis into the body, to cover the crease between the buttocks). While the loincloth is still worn on its own in many circumstances, in the "civilized" world it is rarely seen, and usually only as a marker of exoticism. An indication of primitivism.
In underwear, the fundoshi's influence can be clearly seen. From jockstraps to bikini briefs, the minimal form-hugging aspect of this particular style of loincloth has been translated into the modern age in high relief. The supportiveness of the fundoshi is certainly reflected in the basic design and function of the jockstrap:
As swimwear, the functionality of loincloths (and especially fundoshi) has been echoed although this may be largely culturally forgotten. Thongs are certainly fairly obvious in their pedigree. Perhaps a little less obvious are trunks, which turn some of the vertical lines of a loincloth horizontal:
The loincloth has, outside of daily wear by normal everyday people, graced the hips of many a celebrity or pop-culture household name... yet it remains one of the least discussed, most blushed-over subjects in the history of apparel!
Certainly there are those who have refused to wear a loincloth, failing to recognize its primeval significance, it's link to all that is inextricably male, it's ability to both bind and emphasize masculine force, harness sexual energy and address issues of modesty all at once, its elegant utility. Mark Wahlberg, for example, when reprising Charlton Heston's role from Planet Of The Apes, declined to wear a loincloth for fear it would make people think of his underwear ad campaign for Calvin Klein (as if that would be a bad thing!). Travis Fimmel (interestingly, another Calvin Klein model), in a contemporary portrayal of Tarzan, also balked at wearing a loincloth -- as if you could be King Of The Apes without a strategically ragged bit of leopard fur draped over your masculine core! Tarzan in pants just isn't the same. I sometimes wonder if it's sensible -- if it's sane -- for people to scoff at loincloths but at the same time to own drawers full of underwear. And underwear models, no less! What is it that makes the loincloth shameful and the underwear not? The two are literally a few threads different!
While this isn't a manifesto encouraging the return of the loincloth as daily streetwear, it is a call to relinquish shame. It is a challenge to portray the loincloth further and wider. It is a dare to try a loincloth on, and a double-dare to have the guts not to hide it.