Hail to the new nakedness! A glimpse of bare flesh tells us that a person has nothing to hide

In the Macedonian refugee camps, the Kosovars are still reeling. They had never seen anything like it - a VIP dressed in an open-neck shirt. When the Balkan top brass move about their spheres of influence, they respect the dress code of the Soviet bloc apparatchik: dark suits, white shirts, dark sunglasses. Here instead was Tony Blair, self-appointed saviour of the Kosovars and first among equals in the allied camp, revealing an expanse of bare flesh. The poor interpreter was at a loss for words and failed to translate Blair's unbuttoned look for the people in the tents. Back home, though, we had no problem decoding the sartorial detail: Tony's flash of chest is part of the new nakedness that has become a trademark of our new Britain.

This is not mere voyeurism of the "show us a bit of leg, luv" variety. No, the new nakedness is a challenge to show us who you really are. We've had it with secrets, double entendres, machinations and all those games people of influence play; we're deaf to the weasel words in pretty speeches and holier-than-thou sermons - we've been had for too long by too many.

The only way to win our trust now is to reveal yourself. Not that we want the indecent exposure of the confessional spiel; we suspect that all those tear-soaked and televised tales of woe we were privy to, courtesy of Diana and Oprah and Vanessa, were emotionally draining attempts to manipulate us and that they delivered nothing but the vicarious thrill of watching someone else's private misery. Instead we are looking for some discreet physical exposure - a glimpse of skin, a peep of flesh - that doesn't provide titillation but underlines transparency. We want men and women whose decollete or next-to-nothing garb proclaims that what you see is what you get. Hence our enthusiasm for the braless Charlie Dimmock; for the Tatler shoots of professionals (novelists, historians and television presenters) in their birthday suits; and for Tony's nude torso. Casting off the bra and unbuttoning the shirt have become shorthand for honesty: it's difficult to fudge (unless we're talking body doubles or retouched photographs) when bits of your private parts are on show.

This (nearly) nakedness doesn't just promise honesty. It hints at intimacy and delivers access. It is difficult to be haughty and distant, or to shut down communications or end connections when you are showing your uncupped breasts or your hairy chest. You may not be making yourself available, but you are certainly making yourself approachable - and suddenly vulnerable. Yesterday's men, hermetically sealed in their buttoned-to-the-gills look, kept their distance by giving nothing away. They conveyed their undisputed authority by adhering to the strict and rigid uniform of the professional. Every gesture seemed reined in and every bulge was hidden by their tailored cover-up; we suspected a multitude of sins inside the clothes.

The apostles of the new nakedness have traded in this disciplined and status-conscious look for a looser and unstructured fashion: they are suddenly within reach. Stripping off, albeit only partially, has dented their authority but emphasised their authenticity.

Which was why Tony went down such a treat among the Kosovars: he was not the power- monger but the honest broker. And why Charlie is such a hit with the Ground Force audience: her tips on topsoil look like they stem from real-life experience rather than a gardening encyclopaedia.

The new nakedness is not just about being laid-back and forgoing the pedestal that was once the prerogative of the VIP. It conveys our new priorities: access and authenticity above authority. We want the people we look up to - whether it be the Prime Minister or the telly gardener - to bare it all because they have nothing to hide.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Between two mental universes