From a friend’s post on Google+ about his universe:
One thing that strikes me is that the most advanced worlds have only symbolic clothing, if any. With Sufficiently Advanced Technology they can regulate the microclimate continuously or greatly increase the body’s temperature tolerance. I assume obesity is also eliminated (unless it is considered cute in some cultures) so people don’t hide their bulk in loose clothing. Clothing is then used for modesty, decoration and to signal status or allegiances. At this point, a loincloth / pubic flag suffices, along with jewelry. If status is signaled through aura or skin markings, only modesty remains, and having an object that particularly draws attention to the genital area does not necessarily qualify for that.
Thus, to my great surprise, my universe ended up having a lot of naked and almost naked people. I wonder if this really is going to happen in the real world as well if we survive long enough. I suspect we’d end up with a lot of body paint in that case though. Look at what people do to the parts of their bodies that are visible today. Perhaps clothes are less work after all…
Well, I’ve seen this proposed before as a model for the future, and depending on how your culture evolves, I don’t even think it’s necessarily that unreasonable. But here, just for counterpoint, are the reasons why the Eldraeverse – despite having all the same advantages by way of controllable microclimates, increased temperature tolerance, obesity elimination, yadda yadda, didn’t go down this road.
Initially, before we get started, let me take a moment to point out that none of them is modesty, in the taboo/body-shame per-se/cranky deities sense of the word. After all, if that was the case, one imagines that the mixed-sex (all six!), mixed-race, mixed-species public baths with all the ensuing nakedness would be something of a problem for the modesty-and-decency brigade, which they very much aren’t.
And yet clothing is traditionally worn, and Anharmonic Indecency – which covers among other things some of the territory of our Indecent Exposure exists in the law code (for the administration of public areas; you can never get it for anything you do inside your own property line, including the hull of your vehicle) – although it takes effort to get that one through simple underdressedness unless you’re actually waving your genitals around. Why?
Well, first, there’s distraction. Note, and this is an important note, that this is not some gender-wacky “women must not tempt men” notion, such as idiots on Earth keep bringing up. (If you tried bringing that up in the Empire, you’d be laughed at, and if you were persistent or unlucky, shot. If you tried bringing it up as a defense in a rape trial, which in Imperial legal parlance encompasses the entire territory of sexual assault, you’d be shot more.)
Rather, it’s just the general recognition that most species, irrespective of gender, have hard-coding in their sensory cortex that says “PAY ATTENTION TO NEKKED PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY ATTRACTIVE ONES”, and this tends to produce the same sort of problems, attention-economics-wise, as using cellphones while driving and suchlike, except that it’s an unexpected stimulus you weren’t planning on reacting to. As such, there is a certain degree of public safety utility in not having attractive naked people wandering around where people are driving and operating heavy machinery, never mind the net effect on efficiency of all the distraction prompts in your brain.
In short, it’s like doing any of those other attention-grabbing things when people are trying to work/play/otherwise attend to their own business. It’s rude.
(This is obviously not applicable in those places where nudity is acceptable, like the public baths – where efficiency is not a concern in a leisure activity, and where the possibilities for serious accidents with Doc Kajen’s Superbly Awesome Old-Time Bath Nanosalts and massage oil are mostly, well, not.)
Second, there’s negative aesthetics. Recognizing that almost everyone’s attractive to someone, almost no-one’s attractive to everyone. Accepting the quoted point regarding how much is needed for decoration – although I’m going to dispute it again below – this eliminates the way that clothing also covers up a multitude of sins. Literally in, say, my case, in which it covers up the effects of my raddled and dissipated lifestyle including a taste for steak, booze, sherry trifle, and soft living; more figuratively, it also conceals the effects of a lot more of life’s events on the body that we may not necessarily want to advertise to everybody. Or just those parts of the body that evolved very much for utility, not appearance.
It’s not a reflection of cultural body-shame to point out that my naked beer gut is never going to be an attractive feature. (Or even the personal kind, for that matter. I’m not ashamed of that particular trade-off; I will gladly admit to a strong preference for NOM NOM NOM over six-pack abs, even while aesthetically preferring to conceal the consequences of said preference.) It might be, I suppose, and I admit I have limited experience with the mindset of the female of the species, to speculate that the last-chicken-in-the-shop look of the male genitalia isn’t exactly what most ladies look for in a chap, nor will it be winning any art’n'design awards any time soon.
This is a lot less applicable in the modern Empire, of course, given the way people are genetically engineered and nanotechnically enhanced to be born gorgeous and stay that way in perpetuity, with self-maintaining fitness and perfect healing, as it would be in the setting above, but cultural inertia is also a factor. As is no-one is attractive to everyone, and some people don’t want to be.
Thirdly, there’s positive aesthetics, or what is covered above under decoration and status markers, and so forth. To which I will just say that this is culturally dependent, but bear in mind that how much minimalism you can have depends very much on how much you need to display. It may work for a high-context culture where you can make assumptions reliably about t’other chap. The Empire, which encompasses a large number of member cultures and subcultures, and crosses a lot of species lines, functions best as a consciously designed very low-context culture – and as such, can use all the parallel communication channels it can get. They need plenty of space to fit all the relevant signifiers, even with v-tags and so forth. And the more you wear, the more messages your clothing can send.
On the decoration side of things, I’d also point out the aesthetic diversity issue. If you’re sticking with a loincloth and some jewelry, there’s a lot less potential for it than in more complex multigarment arrangements – and today, even when you take only clothing-sets displaying approximately equal status and clade markers, there’s a heck of a lot of different variations in ways to dress which exist principally for the purpose of being different from each other. This is going to be important to any high-individualism culture, and even if they started out with a minimal clothing-set, I’d expect it to get more and more complicated for this reason alone; letting people differentiate themselves from their neighbors.
Fourthly, pleasure. Although this may escape most of us today, inasmuch as the vast majority of clothing on the planet is made from cheap fibers or blends, factory-assembled and sold made-to-measure, for which read inevitably ill-fitting, a really, really good suit or other article of clothing from a good tailor, dressmaker, or hand-crafter can be an active sensual pleasure to wear. In the glorious rich, nigh-post-scarcity futures which include both widely available bespoke garment production and quite possibly enhanced tactile senses and ability to enjoy them, this will only be enhanced.
And to end on a practical note, fifth and lastly, protection, in both ways. Firstly, protection of us, because one finds it useful to protect against getting one’s dangly bits caught in the machinery, and so forth. Okay, yes, a loincloth will deal with that, but even day to day, and even assuming that microclimate control also keeps out undesired radiation, the world offers a multitude of sharp, spinny, spiky, abrasive, sticky, hot or other things, and sticky, hot, acidic, caustic, or cold spills, which one would prefer to stay at least one layer of textiles away from one’s flesh. If only for ease of cleanup.
Second, protection of the environment. Not to put too fine a point on it, but people are messy. Even we clothing-wearers shed ungodly amounts of hair and skin-flakes into the environment every day that we have to brush up and throw away. Now multiply that by the amount that currently ends up on the inside of our clothing that we launder away. Then contemplate that, not to put too fine a point on it, humans (and other biosapients) leak. The owners of the local environment, I submit, do not need everything from sweat through overflowing breast milk to skid-marks and that stuff that collects in one’s ass-crack on hot days added to the stuff they need to clean off the furniture, or worse, find has soaked into the furniture, inasmuch as you can’t conveniently stick a whole couch into the washing machine on a regular basis.
It’s not cultural body-shame to find the notion of sharing in (most of, and outside special circumstances) your fellow man’s body fluids kind of gross, either. (Also, public health.)