A Brief History
On July 10th, 1040, Lady Godiva is supposed to have ridden naked on horseback to force her husband, the Earl of Mercia, to lower taxes.
Since Lady Godiva’s legendary ride, many other women have made great impressions on culture, society and history mainly because they were in the buff. This article will list the top 10 women famous for being naked or who, at one point in their lives, had famously been naked. The order they will be presented in is not a ranking, but merely a chronological listing.
For the other articles in the History and Headlines series on naked ladies, please click here.
For the latest installment in this series, the “Top 10 Black Women Famous for Being Naked,” compiled in honor of Black History Month, please click here.
For an article concerning a famous empress and future saint known for her seductive use of her body, please examine “The Saint Who Liked To Spank!” Finally, for more on the topic of women not wearing a specific article of clothing (the bra!), please read “When National Geographic First Showed a Woman’s Bare Breasts in its Magazine” and “June 4, 2010: Braless Attorney Barred from Entering Prison.”
1. Lady Godiva – 1040
Though her nude ride is stuff of legends, Lady Godiva did in fact exist and was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, in what is present-day England. Since the couple were generous benefactors to religious houses, there are many records of them. The legend of the nude ride was first recorded in the 13th century, two hundred years after it was supposed to have taken place. Feeling sympathy for the people of Coventry who were suffering greatly because of the high taxes imposed by her husband, she begged him to lift the taxation. When he laughed and told her he would only do it if she rode on horseback through the streets without clothes, she took him at his word and mounted a horse clothed in only her long hair. Her husband probably fearing that other men would see his wife naked issued a proclamation that everyone was to stay indoors with the blinds shut. One man by the name of Tom, however, disobeyed that order and spied on Lady Godiva as she rode past his shop. To this day, such voyeurs are called “Peeping Toms.” In the end, the Earl of Mercia is said to have been impressed by his wife’s courage, and lowered the taxes.
2. Simonetta Vespucci (Botticelli’s Venus) – late 15th century
Simonetta Vespucci was an Italian woman of the Renaissance who was renowned for being the greatest beauty in Florence where she attracted the attention of the famous painter Sandro Bottecelli and became his muse. Though she died young, her image continued to inspire Bottecelli and he used her likeness for his some of his most famous works, including his Birth of Venus nine years after her death. In this famous painting, Simonetta is depicted as Venus, rising nucle from the foamy sea and standing on a scallop shell, her strawberry blonde hair flowing about her. As a result of Bottecelli’s devotion, Simonetta is since known as the most beautiful woman of the Renaissance.
3. Victorine Meurent (Manet’s Olympia) – mid to late 19th century
An artist in her own right, today Victorine Meurent is primarily known as the French Impressionist painter, Édouard Manet’s favorite model. He used her nude image in two of his most famous and controversial works – Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia. In the former, known in the English-speaking world as The Luncheon on the Grass, Victorine is depicted nude as she picnics with fully clothed men. She is the only subject of the painting who looks directly at the viewer and she does it with a grin and in a confident, secure and almost provocative manner. As Olympia, Manet depicts her as a courtesan reclining on a couch as if she were waiting for her next gentleman-customer. Again, she directly looks at the viewer, this time with an almost confrontational gaze. Both paintings when first displayed were criticized and attacked as viewers felt threatened by such overt displays of prostitution, sexuality and female confidence. This public response immortalized Victorine’s nucle body in the world of art.
4. Josephine Baker – 1920s and 1930s
This African-American born woman who later became a citizen of France took Paris by storm in the 1920s where she became known for her comedic appeal, erotic dancing and for practically appearing nude onstage, something she could not have done in prude America. Although she was not Chiquita Banana, her most famous outfit consisted solely of 16 bananas being strung around her waist. Whereas in France and Europe she was treated like a superstar, later attempts at success in America failed because American audiences rejected the thought of a black woman being just as sophisticated as high-class Frenchwoman. In addition she refused to entertain in venues that practiced segregation, having initially left the United States to avoid racism. As a result, American audiences missed out on a performer Ernest Hemingway, who also lived in Paris at that time, described as, “…the most sensational woman anybody ever saw or ever will.”
5. Marilyn Monroe – 1950s
Marilyn Monroe is the perfect example of yet-unknown good girls trying to catch a break in the entertainment world having to resort to letting nude pictures be taken of them to make ends meet and then later having these pictures come back and “haunt” them. When Marilyn posed for her iconic nude photos in 1949, she did so because she was a struggling actress. Four years later, when she finally getting bigger roles, Hugh Heffner bought the rights to the photos and published them in his first issue of Playboy, making Marilyn the first official Playmate of the Month. Initially Marilyn was embarrassed by her nude photos appearing on calendars and magazines, but her explanation that she needed the money to pay the rent, garnered her such public sympathy and support that it did not hurt her career, and the photos gave her the publicity she needed to become the most famous blonde bombshell ever.
6. Jayne Mansfield – 1963
Jayne Mansfield, often unfairly described as the poor man’s Marilyn Monroe, was in her own right a groundbreaker. Though often considered a ditz, she did in fact have a genius IQ, could play the violin and was a woman of considerable depth who was greatly loved by her husband and children for her kindness and compassion. Her image was an act and Jayne had no problem dumbing herself down because that was her entertainment persona. She also had no issues displaying her ample assets to further her career and was the first mainstream actress to appear nude in a movie. The movie was called Promises! Promises! and was banned in Cleveland and many cities, though the Cleveland courts later ruled that the nude scenes were not lewd. True to form in her role as the cheap Marilyn, photos of her nude from the movie set were published in the June 1963 issue of Playboy. Even if her willingness to show her breasts on camera was considered trashy at the time, she was the first star to go nude, which made it more acceptable for the other actresses who followed her. Not even Marilyn did this.
7. Yoko Ono – 1968
Although not considered a great beauty, Yoko’s nude body graced the cover of a record album. In 1968 she and John Lennon released their experimental album Two Virgins with a nude cover. The full frontal nudity was so explicit and provoked such outrage that the record had to be covered with a brown bag. Many copies of the album were impounded because the cover was considered obscene. John Lennon believed the uproar had less to do with the explicit nudity but rather with the fact that both subjects were both overweight and somewhat unattractive (Of course this is coming from the guy who said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ…). At any rate, it was her unclothed body on an album cover that gave Yoko Ono her first taste of notoriety and made her a household name.
8. Demi Moore – 1991/1992
Two of the most famous magazine covers to ever grace publication were both fronted by Demi Moore in the nude. Both shot by Annie Leibovitz, the first displayed a heavily pregnant Demi in her birthday suit and the second one a thinner Demi in a painted suit. The cover of pregnant Demi is considered one of the most highly regarded magazine covers of all time and started the trend for celebrities to grace the covers of magazines with their pregnant bellies. This may seem commonplace now, but at the time Demi and Annie were pushing the boundaries of the socially acceptable. For the second cover, Demi allowed a business suit to be painted on her nude body. Published just one year after the belly photo, the suit photo was meant to show off the results of Demi’s fitness regimen. Demi later used both her nudity and her toned physique to her advantage in movies such as GI Jane and Striptease.
9. Madonna – 1992
In the early 90s, Madonna wrote (or rather modelled for) her coffee table book Sex. Probably initially meant more to provoke and to illicit a public response rather than to tastefully display depictions of erotica, this book is now deemed a bold, post-feminist, work of art. Though the book contains poems, stories and essays (like who is actually buying the book to read them?), it is probably primarily read for the images of Madonna’s sexual fantasies which include simulated bisexual and homosexual sex, sadomasochism and analingus. Whatever the literary content though, what is remembered most is that Madonna was buttnaked in many of the pictures and in many of the movies she starred in at that time. Madonna is someone who might be labeled a “provocatrice” or rather “provocatrix…”(made up word by the author and derived from provocatrice combined with dominatrix). She does what she does more so for the reaction than for the actual artistic merit. Lucky for her, her actions are later deemed artistic.
10. Kate Winslet 1997
“Jack, I want you to draw me like one of your French girls.” Who could forget this iconic quote and the iconic scene that followed? Kate Winslet, known for not being shy on camera, disrobed for the only nude scene in the movie Titanic. Wearing only the Heart of the Ocean necklace, Rose poses nude on a couch and lets herself be sketched by Jack. This scene was probably one of the most romantic and tastefully depicted images of nudity on film, with music that definitely contributed to the atmosphere of the scene. An interesting fact that not many people may know is that the sketch done of Kate/Rose was actually done by the director, James Cameron, himself. It was, however, Kate’s body, natural look and demeanor and comfort level that made the scene what it is. No one can act a nude woman on camera like Kate Winslet. She is one of the few mainstream and respected actresses to regularly go nude for her roles and be praised for it, despite not having the perfect Hollywood body.
Remember, for more ladies famous for being naked, please also refer to our other articles in the series by clicking here.
Question for students (and subscribers): Are these examples of naked women degrading or empowering? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Carr-Gomm, Philip. A Brief History of Nakedness. Reaktion Books, 2010.
Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Princeton University Press, 1972.
Lloyd, Harold, Suzanne Lloyd, et al. Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3-D! Tess, 2004.
The featured image in this article, a painting of Lady Godiva by John Collier (1850–1934) is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: The author died in 1934, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 80 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.