Scene from “Victorian Lady in Her Boudoir” (1896) (GIF by the author for Hyperallergic, via BFI/YouTube)

In the 1896 “Victorian Lady in Her Boudoir,” a heavily clothed woman enters a room and, button by button, fastener by fastener, drops her modest petticoats and corset until she’s wearing just a chemise, her feet bare. It might not seem racy now, but according to the British Film Institute (BFI), it’s the earliest known erotic film made in the UK. BFI adds that “it’s possible that other (and perhaps more explicit) examples exist in private hands, but this is certainly the oldest surviving British film of its kind we know of.”

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This slice of Victorian smut is among the recently digitized films collected in the BFI Player’s “The Pleasure Principle” collection. The selections of erotic cinema, most available to watch for free, date from the 19th to the 21st centuries. BFI announced the collection in December, noting that erotica has “always played a part in the history and development of cinema.” For instance, out of necessity these filmmakers were pioneers of alternative modes of distribution. Due to censorship and police-enforced regulations, the films were presented “as gentlemen’s ‘smokers’ in private clubs” or  “despatched under plain brown wrapper to private homes for personal projection in the decades before the home video revolution.”

“The Pleasure Principle” on BFI Player (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Other early examples include Claude Friese-Greene’s 1920 “Nude Woman by Waterfall,” which emphasized the nude woman as artist’s model. The 1943 “Action in Slow Motion,” with a naked woman enjoying the seashore, featured a disclaimer that it was made “expressly for assistance to artists and students.” The same tactics to avoid censorship were present in early American cinema, such as Inspiration (1915), which starred Gilded Age artist’s model Audrey Munson as the first woman to appear fully nude in a filmAs the The Morning Telegraph noted at the time, “the nude figure of a woman has been used for artistic reasons only.”

As the history represented by “The Pleasure Principle” progresses over the decades, the films continue to push the boundaries of propriety. Mary Field’s 1929 “The Irresponsibles” is a warning against STDs, while “Off the Shoulder” from 1951 is a study of the exposed shoulder. The 1961 “Burlesque Queen” offers a rare view of a burlesque act in London’s Soho at that time, complete with leopard-skin wrap; the 1969 “Moment,” by filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin, concentrates on a woman’s face before, during, and after orgasm.

BFI notes that many of these films survive thanks to private collections and archives, and scholarship on them has only recently begun. “The Pleasure Principle” is part of a five-year BFI “Britain on Film” project aiming to digitize and share 10,000 films from the National Archives and others around the UK. So the Victorian temptress may soon be joined by more rediscoveries from the early era of film.

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The Pleasure Principle” is available online on the British Film Institute Player.

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...