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Is there any reason to believe intelligent aliens would wear clothing? After all, of all of the species on earth, we know of only one species that does so. Is the fact that this species happens to also be highly intelligent the cause of this behaviour or simply coincidental? Is there perhaps a connection between civilization and dressing oneself?


In case I need to be more specific, I am designing an alien species who's members:

  • move in a gorilla-like fashion (a combination of bipedalism and quadrupedalism, but leaning very heavily on the latter)
  • are much larger than humans (slightly larger than an elephant and having a mass of ~ 6000kg)
  • are monogamous for the duration of the child rearing process (which takes about a decade or two)
  • live in a rather cold environment (by human standards) but have thick fur coats and are warm-blooded, so they are suited to such a climate

Is it realistic for these aliens to wear clothing? Would they perhaps only wear accessories such as jewelry? What determines whether a species wears clothing?

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closed as primarily opinion-based by L.Dutch, sphennings, Aify, Vylix, Mark Jul 28 '17 at 0:01

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Do they have uses for pockets? $\endgroup$ – Michał Politowski Jul 27 '17 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ @MichałPolitowski Certainly. Though pockets don't really demand clothing. Only a sach is really necessary. To clarify, by "clothing" I mean actual outfits that cover much of the body and not simply a bag or belt used to store belongings. $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Jul 27 '17 at 9:14
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed. I expect a good answer to be "they are likely to wear something, not sure if we would call it clothes". $\endgroup$ – Michał Politowski Jul 27 '17 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ @AngelPray I'm sorry if I did not get that part. I think it got lost when they started moving like gorillas. I get the feeling as if you think that clothing is biological and not cultural. Some celtic warriors only wore jewlery in battle and otherwise were completely naked, but those people were crazy. If there would've been for example a genetic reason for this, their descendants, for example the French, would still walk around naked with nothing but jewlery. Some do, they are called "nudists", but I would still argue it isn't genetic but cultural. They are one of those subgroup $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jul 27 '17 at 9:26
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    $\begingroup$ @T.Sar See also Evolution of a predatory antlered cat? (Worldbuilding SE is turning into the new xkcd; there's a question for every occasion.) $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jul 27 '17 at 21:03
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Clothing can also serves as protection. For example, I do not wear shoes out of modesty, I use them because I don't want punctures and scrapes and thorns in my feet. Cowboys wore boots, chaps, hats and gloves to protect themselves, against snake bite, hand damage when handling rough rope with strong herd animals, and shade for sunstroke. Head covering can also retain body heat in the cold.

Of course the first function of loincloths is to protect sensitive genitalia, not hide it. The hiding happens as a result of protection, and then takes on a life of its own: But it was not the first function. If you are riding a horse, scooting on on a limb of a tree, walking through tall stiff grasses or brush, or for whatever working reason might have something between your legs, something to protect your genitalia is good idea for both men and women; but especially for men with more dangly genitalia.

Without a time machine to visit and ask, logic tells us the first purpose of any clothing was likely for protection (including from cold or weather), and not modesty. Obviously the "inventor" of clothing had spent a lifetime naked amongst a completely naked tribe; it is highly unlikely they began wearing some article of clothing just to hide their sexual organs. More likely, they began wearing something because it prevented injury or kept them warm.

Your gorillas can still get cold: My dog has a fur coat, but definitely starts feeling the cold and wants to get inside once the temp drops to within a few degrees of freezing.

The later functions of clothing; for decoration, status, concealment out of modesty, hiding sexual assets (like some Muslim garb) are all most likely add-on purposes due to human psychology: Once you start routinely hiding something, it becomes a mystery and attractive. It was not a lie that in Victorian times, men found even the ankles of women attractive, just because ankles, knees, legs were always concealed in public.

Our modesty is clearly a learned response, not innate. Children learn quickly, but are hilariously immodest exhibitionists in their first years, even after acquiring language. Or perhaps they are normal, and it is the adults being ridiculous.

Yes, your gorillas can have clothing. Center it on the protections they need. For example, even though we could get by without shoes, and our ancestors did for millions of years, they are so protective we do almost nothing barefoot except swimming, where they cause too much drag, and some sandy beach play activities (e.g. volleyball) where bare feet work better.

For intelligent quadrupedal gorillas, I'd start with knuckle and foot protection; they will have to work with their hands extensively (like us) and cannot afford the minor cuts, punctures, and scrapes of normal walking use.

Also, in time, by avoiding the callouses built up by knuckle-walking from birth; the gorillas may find that protection makes their hands more nimble with a more sensitive touch, which helps them work and makes their glove-like knuckle protection a necessity.

Loin protection is always a good idea; for working females breast protection is a good idea that would likely become a cultural norm. When a clothing invention (like shoes or loincloth) becomes considered such a necessity that everyone wears it, within about an average lifetime the number of people (or whatever they call themselves) that have a living memory of things being any different will be near zero; and then the rationale for wearing the item fades into the background of our mind: We wear shoes because everybody wears shoes and we were raised from infancy wearing shoes, so much so that in most situations we expect to see shoes and think something is wrong if people are barefoot: In the office, or mall, or a barefoot cop or lawyer in court. We can even feel uncomfortable about it; as if bare feet suggested disease.

Your gorillas can get cold, as they explore new territory: Much of it is very desirable for 9 months out of the year (on Earth), and bitterly cold and inhospitable in the winter. Protective clothing in these environments can help the survive the winter without leaving the place, which they could not do and protect their property: Settling down can have a lot to do with protecting property, like herds, crops you planted, ready water access, etc.

Then of course, if they are intelligent as humans, these protective purposes extend to their science (working with chemicals, high voltages, machinery, sharp or dangerous objects, etc). The functional purposes apply: Hats, helmets, glasses (to correct vision problems or protect eyes).

Then, within a lifetime or two, the persistently useful clothing becomes a cultural norm and subject to fashion. Social standing for expensive items becomes a thing, like our high fashion and expensive shoes. For us, purely functional items like a watch can become runaway prestige items: You can buy a watch to keep accurate time for around \$10, or spend five thousand times as much to wear a gold and jewels version that is actually less functional and accurate versus the cheap plastic digital version!

Another function of clothing I did not mention: Hiding body odor and uncleanliness. Obviously we have had various body odors since our beginnings, but bad smells can be signs of disease and unfitness. We have been using perfumes and clothing to disguise and conceal such odors for thousands of years, and more recently (although not world-wide) daily (or more frequent) bathing, and clothes washing (usually after a single use). I presume (without first hand knowledge) that gorillas have all the sweat and odor problems of humans.

My furred dog can get stinky. The cats don't, they keep themselves meticulously clean, likely an obsessive compulsive behavior preserved by evolution because it prevents their prey from sniffing out an ambush in the hunt; making them more successful hunters. That rationale would likely not apply to smart gorillas; and the "barrier" of fresh clothing might also help them to conceal unpleasant odors.

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    $\begingroup$ "Or perhaps they are normal, and it is the adults being ridiculous." There is true wisdom in this line. I'm adding this to my collection of witty lines. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Jul 27 '17 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ another big advantage of clothing in cold environments even if you have fur is can stop you from getting wet, rain and melting snow will be stopped by leather not can get through fur. This is a bigger problem for an intelligent creature that might have fire that will melt snow on fur and soak the individual $\endgroup$ – John Jul 27 '17 at 23:08
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Quite possibly. Clothing serves a variety of purposes:

  1. Protection.
    Your species may decide that it has something to protect: sensitive areas of their bodies, or areas that would be particularly problematic if harmed, such as feet and reproductive organs. In wave-exposed areas, green urchins (Strogylocentrotus droebachiensis) cover themselves in debris to help lodge and protect themselves. This behavior is particularly frequent among juveniles, who are especially vulnerable to disturbance by waves.
  2. Showing social status.
    There's only one way to be naked, but there are many ways to be dressed. Particularly if you have a very hierarchical society, your organisms can show their standing or wealth with splendid or expensive clothes, or with articles of clothing reserved for a particular group (think about how snail-juice purple was reserved for only the edge of the senators' robes and the full toga of just the emperor in Rome).
  3. Displaying to potential mates.
    In many cultures, people dress differently before and after marriage. The post-marriage clothes tend to be plainer and simpler, sometimes because there is no longer a need to attract a mate.
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Many great answers here. The easiest way to look at it is that clothing is a tool. If it's an intelligent tool-making race, your species would likely develop clothing as protection or advantage, to extend the capabilities of their physical form.

To identify what your species would likely adopt, you need to look closely at three things;

  1. Their physical form and particularly their physical limitations
  2. Their environment, and exactly where it pushes those limitations (temperature range, weather, solar activity, hostile organisms)
  3. Their cultural and social development. Is their society hierarchical? If so how does the chief stand out? What do they consider attractive, or unattractive?

Here are some examples of clothing-as-a-tool. I'll stay in the realm of terrestrial hominids.

  • Physical protection
    • vs skin abrasion, cuts
    • vs extreme cold or heat
    • vs radiation, including UV radiation (causing sunburn)
    • vs moisture loss (think Dune)
    • vs rain and dampness
    • vs abnormal environments (underwater, and outer space)
    • vs airborne illness (face mask)
    • vs poisonous substances (gas mask)
    • vs intense light (sunglasses)
    • as armor vs attack by predators, insects, disease, or enemies
  • Physical comfort
    • added warmth or cooling, simply for the enjoyment of it
    • skin stimulation, anything which creates pleasure or feels nice. if you've worn compression clothing, you know a feeling is created which is rather invigorating.
  • Physical advantage. Improvement of any physical trait to help you in your world.
    • physical height (stilts)
    • improved vision (glasses)
    • improved hearing (hearing aids)
    • mobility (rollerblades, Jetpacks)
    • strength (Ironman suit)
  • Beauty and attractiveness to mates
    • any culture that reproduces sexually would likely have mate selectivity. In an intelligent race, this would quickly translate into looking for ways to emphasize your sexual attractiveness. Jewelry. Wonder bra. Makeup. Shoes to make you taller.
    • humans take this to an extreme and do body modification. piercings and tatoos obviously, but as it relates to clothing, I'm thinking of bound feet and small shoes to keep female feet small, and neck rings used to distend the neck.
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I am not going to willingly sit down on a surface which some guy with diarrhea or some gal menstruating just got up from.

Nudity has some OBVIOUS hygiene issues, especially in a cold climate where surfaces may not be cleaned often.

Your scenario is that cold-adapted furry quadrupeds are running around. Well, I know how often I have to clean the rear ends of my dogs after they ate something that didn't agree with them, so I'd expect that even a furry quadruped will wear something similar to a diaper unless his plumbing is much different than ours.

Seems to me it depends on population density and a host of social factors. For instance over 50% of the Indian population practice open defecation. The central gov't has been trying for years to eliminate the practice as both the stench and the public hygiene could be much improved, but water is a serious problem there.

So could your aliens be clothed? Yes. Nude? Yes, as long as other measures were implemented to control infections and the spread of disease. Given the host of things clothing does for us, you have to figure out how to give your aliens the same advantages (social signalling, status, (uniforms), environmental protection, hygiene, decoration, etc.)

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    $\begingroup$ Much of our history would be disgusting today. Social (is it gross), economic (can we afford it), and health (would it actually make us sick) reasons would dictate the answer. What if decomposition is hyper accelerated so street poo dissapears in hours? What if there are public cleanliness nannites? What if there is no nudity taboo? What if there are no periods or the blood is considered no dirtier than spit? What if these aliens have sympathetic parasites that literally eat their waste? What if the cold shuts down germs. There are so many things that could make nudity and hygiene a nonissue. $\endgroup$ – user2259716 Jul 27 '17 at 21:54
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The monogamous nature of child rearing would likely lend to covers of anything the species deem sexual or desirable in a potential mate (note that there are still some cultures that exist today that don't see any taboo in a bare chested woman). Men in this culture would likely hide genitalia as external nature of male genitals is related to temperature control, hence "shrinkage". This keeps sperm at a regulated temperature by keeping it close to the body and cools it off by moving away in warm climates. Both men and women are rather sensitive in those spots, due to our lack of reproduction cycles (humans do not have a mating season where our hormonal drive to reproduce overwhelms us. Rather, we are biologically wired to pleasure as an incentive for procreation which facilitates diverse birth times. The advantage is avoiding a large die off and allowing dedication to a smaller but more time consuming litter, which facilitates education.). Humans rank among one of a few members of the animal kingdom that engages in sex for reasons other than procreation. Only Bonobos (a close relative of ours in the Ape family) and Dolphins are known for such behavior... and all three rank among the most intelligent in the animal kingdom. Bonobos, in particular, are used as nearest human intelligent animals specifically for it's close genetic history and sexuality... and researchers who work with them have all sorts of sultry stories about the (hopefully one-sided) advances of their research subjects.

That said, humans are monogamous (also rare in the Animal kingdom, but nowhere near as rare as sex for non-reproductive activities). This could motivate the jump from protection of sensitive areas to more cover to fashion as a monogamous Ice Ape pairing would feel threatened by competition from other members of their gender who find their mate desirable. As enlightened as we like to think, both men and women can get quite possessive of their partner and will try to limit the threat to what is theirs. Fashion would likely develop as ways to come close but not over the taboo of showing off the goods. Or to be less refined about it, sex sells. The bikini caught on because it showed off a lot of tantalizing areas. Men's clothing ads accentuate desirable features such as arms, eyes, hair, and chest and musculature, all signs of being successful and thus capable of raising a family (the number of digits behind a Dollar Sign in your pay check has a drastic affect on who can be attracted to you). Even a witty phrase on a t-shirt communicates that "I've got a sexy brain and there's more to me than meets the eye". Even accessories play into this. The traditional dress at Oktoberfest includes a bow that, depending on how you wear it, not only communicates your relationship status (married, dating, single, and "You're going to meet Chris Hansen if you try anything") but also their availability to starting something with someone (Men in Oktoberfest do not have any equivelent, but Lederhosen are never washed and it is tradition for girls to write their names on the flap after they have been with the guy. More names equals more desirable male... though watch out for male names among the list. Typically it means exactly what you think... but occasionally a dissatisfied woman has been known to write a male name to sabotage future attempts. A single pair of Lederhosen can cost as much as a decent dress for the event, before you factor in other parts of the outfit, typically a unique in Men's fashion when compared to women's fashion... the trade off is that the women's clothing are not built to last as long as the Lederhosen.).

Oh, and one fun fact: among primates, humans are quite large in reproductive areas when compared to the ratio to overall body size. This facilitates a child with a rather large head compared to most animal sizes at birth and in turn, fitting tab-A into slot-B of an increased size. Naturally, of course, size matters not, right... that's why everyone wants to be hung like Yoda?

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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with the claim as fact that humans are "monogamous", that is culture, not biology. Most young males want all the mating variety they can get. Many marriages end in divorce due to cheating by a spouse, or both spouses. After child-rearing couples frequently fall out of love, and certainly when young, at least in countries where they are free to do so, both men and women can be quite promiscuous. In early human cultures it was not unusual at all for men to have many wives; the Bible is accurate about early society. we naturally mate for about 7 years to raise some kids, not for life. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus Jul 27 '17 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Amadeus I believe they mean monogamy for the duration of a child rearing. Most monogamous animals (including humans), indeed do not practice lifelong monogamy. The definition of monogamy in zoology is simply "having only one mate at a time". $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Jul 27 '17 at 18:32
  • $\begingroup$ @AngelPray: I was more in the biological sense in general than child-rearing specifically, but it's an evolutionary prerogative that does frequent nature. In most child-rearing animals, the death of a parent puts the child at a competitive disadvantage for resources as they cannot secure them yet and the other parents in the society are securing them for their own offspring. A monogamous child-rearing acts as a buffer so that should one parent be removed prior to offspring's survival to adulthood, another parent is still available. $\endgroup$ – hszmv Jul 27 '17 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ @AngelPray Across dozens and dozens of cultures, on widely isolated contintents and islands, across many thousands of years? That is almost certainly a genetic predisposition driving that outcome, not a cultural one. Evolutionarily speaking men have the most reproductive success impregnating as many women as possible, and men that become rich and powerful have historically achieved exactly that. Monogamy in humans is not their default state; if it were, vows to remain monogamous would be superfluous. Divorces and breakups over cheating would be nearly non-existent, and implausible fiction. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus Jul 27 '17 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Amadeus I agree with you that lifelong monogamy within humans is fictitious, I don't however think you have sufficient evidence to show that monogamy within a rearing period is indeed just a cultural affectation. $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Jul 27 '17 at 20:32
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If they have fur, why?

We started wearing clothing from protection from the elements and as armor.

Even light clothing acts as protection. If you don't think so, try off trail hiking in the woods with shorts and a short sleeve shirt. Or, for an experience closer to reality try bounding naked through the forest. Unless you move slowly and carefully, you will be covered in scrapes and bruises.

The leathers that you associate with primitive people not only helps us regulate temperature but it is a loose layer that can snag claws and fangs that don't quite get a grip on their target.

If the fur did not thin out as they evolved, they would only need clothes in cold weather and armor for fighting or hunting.

On the other hand, we didn't get our intelligence by being the the strongest, fastest or best adapted to our environment. We got it because being smarter was the only way we could survive. Maybe losing the fur and forcing our ancestors to come up with a solution to help them survive was a contributing factor to intelligence. However, I don't think that it is necessary for intelligence.

Currently, we use clothing as climate control and decoration. As decoration, it is mostly an indicator of status.

With decent fur, the climate control reason is out. As a status indicator, there are many ways to indicate status. Maybe they tie ribbons in their fur or weave it in patterns or wear jewelry. This gives another touch point in your story to show that the aliens are different.

Also, clothing over fur might be irritating. I remember an Andre Norton story where the aliens hated the idea of wearing clothing because it was constantly dragging against their fur in the wrong direction.

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  • $\begingroup$ "The leathers that you associate with primitive people", when did I insinuate I believed clothing was unnecessary or primitive amongst humans? $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Jul 27 '17 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ @AngelPray, I could have said "that one would associate..." but that just sounds too stuffy for me. I was going by the fact that cavemen are generally pictured wearing uncured animal skins. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Jul 27 '17 at 22:11
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First, i think that the size of your aliens is problematic. At that weight, they won't be able to stand on two feet, and they need to be built really massively to support their weight without breaking their own bones. Even elephants have already a problem there, they frequently break their bones during sex (when the male stands on his rear feet). The high intertial mass coupled with low gravity will provide its own challenges with movement. (possibly including snapping bones)

The size means they'll never get cold: see square-cube law, bigger bodies produce more internal heat per surface area. They do not need any external insulation, whether fur or clothing. And they are also likely to have thick skin, so they also won't need protection from scratches etc.

The heat argument only holds for warm-blooded species, of course, but a cold-blooded species won't be warmed by clothing either.

Therefore i think it is likely that a massive species won't ever find a need for clothing except for decorative purposes. (and space suits)

Any "modesty" or "fashion" motives we have are only a secondary result of our use of clothing, but of course they might find a desire to decorate their bodies, and use belts with pouches etc.

I'm picturing Barsoomian Martians here.

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    $\begingroup$ They exist on a planet with significantly lower gravity. Their mass is thus much less of a problem. $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Jul 27 '17 at 9:17
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    $\begingroup$ @AngelPray: well you said they are weighing 6000kg. $\endgroup$ – ths Jul 27 '17 at 9:18
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, my mistake. I've corrected that. $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Jul 27 '17 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ @AngelPray You may want to clarify the lower gravity in your question as well, lest people may be inclined to assume Earth-like gravity. I certainly overlooked the distinction at first reading. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jul 27 '17 at 14:56
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If they are intelligent then yes they would wear clothing. Any intelligent being would belong to a culture and I think clothing no matter where it's worn or how much is covered is essential to a culture. To support this is that part of being intelligent is being aware of your body and knowing what is private and what is not. Any civilization would need clothing to cover up what is considered private (perhaps shameful?) up-to a point where everyone understands each other and think they have nothing to hide (utopian indeed) and become nudists.

To really focus on the subject in question, your species might have enough fur to cover private parts but also you need to understand that clothing might also be needed for other purposes like wars, ceremonies, strata and activities like hunting,industry, adventures, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ "Any civilization would need clothing to cover up what is considered private". Why would intelligent aliens obligatorily feel that any part of them is "private"? To me that statement just sounds completely unfounded. $\endgroup$ – AngelPray Jul 27 '17 at 10:27
  • $\begingroup$ I'm assuming intelligent beings to more conscious-aware like the way humans are or more. I think what is considered indecent exposure by us to be same to them even if procreation by them is different than the way do it. The same way we categorize moral things should apply them if intelligent e.g. Any intelligent being should know greed is bad as well as envy/hate. $\endgroup$ – dawyda254 Jul 27 '17 at 12:58
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Is there any reason to believe intelligent aliens would wear clothing?

Religious beliefs, though you could argue that falls under culture. For example, Christianity, Islam and Judaism point to Genesis 3 as the "why" for clothing (innocence lost => shame => conceal).

Then there's the usual suspects already mentioned of getting attention, advertising status, non-religious nudity taboos (just don't want to see that), practical reasons like protection, utility, concealing identity or confirming identity (a uniform), concealing a difference that causes shame for non-religious reasons (physical deformity or variation).

Another question to ask yourself: Do your aliens all agree or do they have differences that might include choices about clothing? (Gets into confirming identity, to some extent.)

Clothing or lack thereof is a cultural thing. Culture is not objective, and individuals or groups may ignore the majority culture (Google nudist resorts in Texas). So, you may want to ask what your aliens' culture says than if there's an objective reason. Or maybe ask if they're nudists from an anti-nudist world using earth as a nudist resort. :)

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