Naked fairies- nudity in fairyland

mush fae

In a book published in 2017, American art historian Susan Casteras contributed a chapter on Victorian fairy painting.  She perceptively remarked how nudity, which is very far from being an inherent element in folklore, became something that the Victorians chose to exaggerate in their visions of fairyland.  Many paintings of the period, she rightly observed,  were all about “flaunting nudity for its own sake rather than as a supposedly accurate transcription of faery lore.”  (S. Casteras, ‘Winged Fantasies: Constructions of Childhood, Adolescence and Sexuality in Victorian Fairy Painting’ in Marilyn Brown, Picturing Children, 2017, c.8, 127-8)

simmons fairy lying on a leaf
John Simmons, A Fairy on a Leaf

Looking at John Simmons’ painting above, you cannot help but agree with the second part of Casteras’ comment- although Simmons was a particular offender, producing a number of ‘pin-up’ canvases.  What about the folklore evidence, though?  Victorian pictures- and more recently the work of Alan Lee, Brian Froud and Peter Blake– have habituated us to the idea of a Faery full of frolicking nudes, but how traditional is this?

The honest answer has to be that there’s very little sign of nudity in the older accounts of Faery.  In my post on fairy abductions of children, I mentioned the story of a girl who temporarily went missing in Devon.  A game keeper and his wife living at Chudleigh, on Dartmoor, had two children, and one morning the eldest girl went out to play while her mother dressed her baby sister. In due course, the parents realised that the older child had disappeared and several days of frantic and fruitless searching followed. Eventually, after hope had nearly been lost, the girl was found quite near to her home, completely undressed and without her clothes, but well and happy, not at all starved, and playing contentedly. The pixies were supposed to have stolen the child, but to have cared for her and returned her.

Now, this girl was a human infant and there may have been several reasons why the pixies might have taken off all her clothes.  They may have objected to human things; they may have thought a ‘natural’ state was healthier and preferable.  Whatever the exact explanation, it’s one of the few instances where there’s a suggestion that nudity might be the normal condition in Faery.

The other evidence is all qualified in one way or another. Mermaids don’t have clothes, but that’s for very obvious reasons.  Men are forever falling in love at first sight with these creatures, but you may well suspect that coming across a uninhibited and naked female is a pretty strong draw in any case.

Some fairies don’t ‘need’ clothes at all because they’re naturally very hairy: the brownies, hobgoblins and the Manx fynoderee are all examples of these.  Their shaggy pelts were covering enough.  It’s almost always this kind of faery that is the subject of a story in which a reward of clothes for services rendered alienates the helpful being.  Typically, a brownie or boggart with work faithfully on a farm, threshing grain, carrying hay and tending the livestock, all for very little reward except some bread and milk left out ta night.  After a while, the curiosity of the farmer overcomes good sense and the creature’s labours are spied upon.  It’s seen to be (at the very best), dressed in tattered rags and (at the worst) completely naked.  Pity is taken and new clothes are made in recognition of its hardwork, but all that’s achieved is to offend the fae, who recites a short verse- and leaves forever.

Lastly, the only other definite example of bare fairy flesh is one I’ve discussed several times previously and one in which ulterior motives are very important.  In the medieval romance of Sir Launval, the young knight is summoned into the presence of the fairy lady, Tryamour.  She’s found in a pavilion in a forest, relaxing on a couch on a hot summer’s day.

“For hete her clothes down sche dede/ Almest to her gerdyl stede,/ Than lay sche uncovert; Sche was as whyt as lylye yn May, / Or snow that sneweth yn wynterys day, / He segh never non so pert.””

“because of the heat, she’d undone her dress nearly to her waist; she lay uncovered; she was as white as a lily in May, or snow falling on a winter’s day; he’d never seen anyone so pert.”

Tryamour’s plan is to seduce Launval and, plainly, lying there topless and available is a pretty good scheme for winning his attention.  It’s not normal behaviour in Faery, though, anymore than it is on the earth surface.  Most of the accounts we have of the appearance of fairies describe their clothes– their style and their colour; we are not told that they are provocatively naked.

Nude fairies, therefore, seem to be a Victorian obsession; they are the soft porn of their day.  As has been described before, it was acceptable to display bare breasts in art, but only so long as it was justifiable and/ or distant from the present day.  Painting classical nymphs, oriental harems and fairyland let artists get away with it.  they seized the opportunity- regardless of the fact that the folklore provided almost no basis for this.

11 thoughts on “Naked fairies- nudity in fairyland

  1. What you’re describing here is not atypical at all. Art has always been a way for us humans to express our desires, obsessions and longings. Considering the strict sexual code the Victorians adhered to, it’s no wonder they projected their fascination with nudity onto the creation of fairy art. It was a recourse for them to get away with the free exploration of an aspect on which many limitatons were imposed.

    Thanks for sharing!!!

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts too. Fairy art (like fairy tales as a whole- linking back to your previous comment about fairy parenting) is a vehicle or forum for exploring contemporary anxieties and obsessions. All I’d add is to remark that, just as you said about fairy parents, we probably shouldn’t generalise too much. We view the Victorians as uniformly repressed but this isn’t really true. There was a good deal of sex going on (of all varieties) if you cared to look; it wasn’t all coverings for table legs…

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      1. Of course. The public image of the Victorians is one thing. Quite another what happened behind closed doors in the privacy of one’s home. A thing which is true for any culture and society. Victorians certainly were much more than a bunch of prudes.

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  2. In his book Fairies, Brian Froud discusses the theosophical notion of fairies in that they are etheric rather than physical beings, capable of shapeshifting and taking on an appearance that corresponds to the expectations of the particular observer and reflecting their preconceptions of fairies. Accordingly, if an observer expects fairies to be wearing clothes and to be attired in a particular outfit then they will be observed to be so but if the expectation is that fairies are nude then they will be, clothing being an etheric manifestation rather than actual physical raiments, nor do fairies seem to need clothing to protect themselves against the ravages of the weather. Hence, I do not agree with Freudian interpretations that the Victorians simply flaunted fairy nudity as an excuse for soft porn and cheap thrills. Rather that fairies were portrayed as being clothed because of human embarrassment about the naked body and that nudity is a more accurate representation of the otherworldly nature of fairies.

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    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment. As you’ll know from my recent posting on his art, I am aware of what Brian Froud has written and I have, naturally, also read some of the source texts he used, such as Madame Blavatsky and Geoffrey Hodson. As you may suspect from my posting on Paracelsus, I remain uncertain about the Rosicrucian/ Theosophical approach to faeries. I’ve wrestled with this in other postings, but on the whole, I think, my tendency is to go with a much more solid and corporeal view of their physicality. Personally, I feel this fits the traditional reports better: to me the stumbling block with the proposal that they match their appearance to our expectations is that it introduces an insoluble circularity into the discussion. What formed those stereotypes which they then imitate? I think I’ve mentioned this previously, but the existence of the recognised fairy races or types in British folklore appears to support some consistency in their appearance over centuries. Thanks for raising this question for us!

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  3. I’m more in line with Dracula van Helsing’s view above, on this. For instance, angels are depicted as being clothed (outside of Victorian cherubs), but why would they need to be? In some folklore, the fairies appear clothed, until the glamour falls and their true appearance as ugly naked or semi-naked creatures is revealed. Certainly, the Victorians were less prudish than the story-tellers before them, and they overly idealized the fairies’ beauty, perhaps. However, I don’t think they did so purely for prurient reasons, but rather to accentuate their identity as nature spirits. Indeed, why portray cherubs as nude when all other angels are clothed? Because cherubs are innocent. So, too, the Victorians’ fairies. That is where they depart from folklore, in their portrayal (with wings, in particular) and their attitude. Indeed, they confuse fairies with angels… or diffuse them.

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