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Trashy Treasure – The power and politics of sexualised clothes for women throughout the ages

“We are not special. We are not crap or trash, either. We just are. We just are, and what happens just happens.”

“Trash” in 1555 was used to describe unwanted materials: “A carpenter’s yarde, wherein he dothe laye his tymber and Trasshe.” Similarly, using the word trash to describe “unwanted” people is not a new phenomenon. However, the people to whom the word refers to have changed over time as society decides what is or isn’t useful, what it desires itself to consist of. To refer to an individual with the adjective “trashy” however, (“worthless, disreputable”) has been predominantly applied to women in the modern age based on those aspects of behaviour or dress which seemingly seek to undermine the unspoken laws of conservative society.

The archetypes of women – the whore, the virgin, the mother and so forth – have been applied to categorise and objectify women for hundreds of years, and their clothes provided a means by which to do this. Since the biblical fall of Adam and Eve, nakedness has been equated with sin, but the female enticing the male to eat the forbidden fruit and thereby gain knowledge of his nakedness has been used to politicise the female body much more so than the male. This, and the fact that women are the child-bearers of society has led to their being seen as commodities, whose virtue or whoredom affects all of society.

Expressions like “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” are examples of the historical significance of clothing in either seeking to hide and shroud one’s inner being in a disguise, or to manifest it. A person’s clothes then become an extension of themselves and society is indignant towards the ability of clothes to deceive. If a person is dressed as something they aren’t or whether those are their “real” clothes must be discerned by the onlooker. In wearing different clothes the modern woman appropriates the archetypes of women (the whore, the virgin etc) and decides which of them to dress up as, therefore disseminating the notion that women are confined to one archetype at a time. If someone dresses as a virgin one day and a whore the next, those who categorise them as such are unable to discern which is their true guise, thus the ability of women to dress as they please is a means of self expression, liberation, and freedom from tyranny, disseminating women AS stereotypes, or indeed, women AS their clothes, and transcending arbitrary notions of “the” woman. Clothes are therefore used as a means of transformation. As seen in literature depicting oppressive regimes, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, the clothes are intrinsic to the being:

“[The Commander] goes on. ‘Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes, in the old days? To trick the men into thinking they were several different women. A new one each day.”

“‘So now that we don’t have different clothes,’ I say, ‘you merely have different women.’”

Ultimately the naked human body retains both differences and similarities to those of the same sex. Clothes are both a means by which to distinguish between peoples and also a means by which to make them appear the same.  If our clothes provide meaning through expression of personality, who are we without them? When we think we’re able to manipulate the stereotypes by becoming different people are we in fact adhering to the fetishisation of women’s bodies as interchangeable and depersonalised? If the clothes define the person, and people are dressed the same due to fashion trends, this feeds into the idea of a woman who can fit into any mould, in keeping with medieval notions of beauty in which women must represent a multitude of women in order to satisfy male desire, which still exists to this day, contributing to the mythologising of women not as people but as a fantasy. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote of Elizabeth the First:

“I that was wont to behold her riding like Alexander, hunting like Diana, walking like Venus, the gentle wind blowing her fair hair about her pure cheeks like a nymph, sometime sitting in the shade like a Goddess, sometime singing like an angel, sometime playing like Orpheus; behold! the sorrow of this world once amiss hath bereaved me of all.”

The body of women continues to mean more politically than the body of men, and thus so does the way they dress. The fashion industries for women thrive on the ability to both dictate trends which undermine a woman’s position in society, thereby adhering to the status quo, and also mass market products that change the political atmosphere. What women wear has had a deeper significance through the ages than it would appear. Clothing represents appearance, guise: the politics of each decade have represented liberties and restraints on women through dress. The liberation of the 60s was both freedom and oppression. The freedom to wear short skirts and the oppression of mass marketing through the media, telling women to buy cosmetics and become image obsessed. Though women had the ability to take control of their own bodies by wearing clothes that were perceived as more provocative, this also adhered to their sexualisation and objectification, something that has recurred in this modern age.

Is it possible to retain individuality in a society in which media, advertising and mass marketing skew our perception of what is fashionable, and therefore what we should or should not wear to express ourselves? What’s fashionable is what everyone else is wearing, but what does that say politically? Clothes are in fact commercialising women: taking away their individuality – clothes cease to be tools of expression but become tools of subjection, reducing their worth, and making them interchangeable. With the high speed at which companies must keep up with new demands, most new clothes end up discarded within a short period of their purchase, and therefore literally become trash. Many of the newer products from online retailers are made from cheap materials in order to maintain this constant cycle. So when women are wearing cheap clothes, society, whose opinion is based on men, thus dains them cheap. The disposability of clothes becomes the disposability of the women that wear them, if women are “labelled” as extensions of self-presentation, they can be put on and taken off at will, by the men that dictate what is or isn’t fashionable. To be fashionable is to be new, and to be out of fashion is to be discarded. That we wear different clothes every day necessitates their continuous availability. To what extent are we wearing the clothes or the clothes wearing us? If one is what one wears, the “trashy” trends are in fact a desire to manipulate women into conforming to the over sexualised stereotypes of the woman as a temptress – almost harkening all the way back to Eve and Adam. The indoctrination of adverts, intrinsic to a consumer society, may in fact also be maintaining a women’s supposedly inferior position. Clothes are sold as objects to buy or sell to meet demands as women buy and sell these objects to meet the demands of society, ironically leading to their own objectification. Are we using the fashion industry to buy clothes or is the fashion industry using us to sell them? To what extent does choice in fashion exist?

On the other hand, reinventing the meaning of the word “trash” is the same as appropriating seemingly “trashy” clothes to make them something else: turning trash into treasure. If mass markets dictate that short skirts are fashionable then by wearing them a woman doesn’t have to conform to the notion of them as provocative. If a woman’s body was no longer politicised a short skirt would mean no more than a man wearing a t-shirt. The notion of trashiness is one that rests on presumptions that the clothes one wears define one’s personality, but we ourselves define what we are, and what the clothes we wear represent. The politicisation of the female body is intrinsic to an understanding of why the way women dress has been described as “trashy” and therefore, by implication, undesirable – to whom? And why? To paraphrase the saying that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure (because who cares what men think) – trash IS treasure! To say otherwise is to fall into societal stereotypes that have aimed to reduce the worth of women throughout time. What is or isn’t useful or of value is not based on the item itself but on the viewer’s perception of that item.

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