We are a society that is intolerant of ugliness. We treat it almost like a sickness – something to be dealt with urgently and seriously. See an imperfection? Operate, treat or medicate. If our hair is greying we dye it. If our skin is blotched we take Sebomin or Dianette. If our breasts or nose are too big, too small or too crooked we take a trip to Harley Street, or abroad if we’re on a budget. We are in a constant process of cleaning ourselves up – preening, polishing, buffing, smoothing, removing and generally sanitising. It’s an exhausting existence.
For years, the epitome of ugliness was filth. Dirt. Mud. Stains. Mould. They were synonymous with all that is evil, from witchcraft to the devil and death. Sebastian Pauli’s As Soon as this Body from Lenten Sermons, penned in the 17th century, even implies that the reason one should fear death is because of the process of becoming dirty, disgusting and dishevelled that goes with it. The horror wasn’t eternal purgatory but physical grotesqueness: ‘As soon as this body is closed up in its tomb it changes colour, becoming yellow and pale, but with a certain nauseating pallor and wanness that makes one afraid. Then it will blacken from head to toe; and a grim and gloomy heat, like that of banked coals, will cover it entirely. Then the face, chest, and stomach will begin to swell strangely and a greasy mould will grow, the foul product of approaching corruption. Not long thereafter, that yellow and swollen stomach will begin to spit and burst here and there: thence will issue forth a slow lava of putrefaction and revolting things in which pieces and chunks of black and rotten flesh float and swim. Here you see a worm-ridden half an eye, there a strip of putrid and rotten lip; and further on a bunch of lacerated, bluish intestine. In this greasy muck a number of small flies will generate, as well as other disgusting little creatures that swarm and wind around one another in that corrupt blood.’ How picturesque.
When Alexander McQueen presented his models mud-ridden, in ripped garb and tatty lace, complete with accessories that looked like tampon strings for Highland Rape in 1995 he was he was accused of misogyny. Sure, on neighbouring runways women appeared in teeny body-con minis and stilettos, chests-pumped and hair froofed - but that’s fashion. Dirty a woman up and make her look unkempt and unhygienic and that’s real sexism. After all there’s nothing so vulgar as uncleanliness, especially when it’s deliberate. So half-nude Galliano girl Angela Lindvall became almost dangerously sensual and seductive – rude even – when covered in grease and car oil in Nick Knight’s Spring/Summer 2001 Dior campaign. The pouting and posing were mere flirtation, the oil smacked of sex. That trick has been less artfully employed by lads’ mags and pornographers lots recently. Cover a girl in oil or moisture and she looks sweaty – sweat suggests movement, writhing and rubbing. Good girls don’t sweat.
Poise and purity have long been associated with prettiness and with that passivity and traditional, regressive femininity. To be beautiful one must be ordered and proper. Like Kate Middleton. Dirt suggests activity, agency and autonomy. Throughout history right up until the twenties the ultimate faux pas was a tan as it suggested work and outdoor pursuits. Dainty, deathly pale skin suggested a life lived like a china doll. How feminine.
In 1996, an American high school pupil named Michael Lucid documented a set of girls at his school who had cultivated a deliberately unkempt look. Dirty Girls, a rough, lo-fi student project, has over half a million hits on YouTube. What’s most striking is not the ‘crass behaviour and allegedly bad hygiene', to quote Lucid, of Amber and Harper, the two sisters who the film follows closest, but the outraged reaction of their fellow students when faced with women who won’t conform. ‘It's just unacceptable. They look like trash,’ says one particularly hysterical classmate. ‘They're wearing garbage, they have this hideous makeup all over their face. They extend to the greatest limits of insanity and hideosity. I just don't understand why that's something they strive for? I mean what does that say about you - you're filthy!?’ One slightly more perceptive pupil ponders, ‘Maybe it's a statement of what it means to be a woman today – they’re going against everything that is expected,’ albeit while giggling and guffawing at the outsiders.
While the ‘Dirty Girls’ themselves initially shrug off their appearance as them just ‘being who they want’, it becomes clear they are making a feminist statement. Harper is proud to call herself a Riot Grrrl. The pair even have their own zine which unpicks the expectations and inequalities that women face. Tellingly at one point Harper states, ‘I think that a Riot Grrrl is someone who doesn't agree with how women are being treated in society right now. We're happy to state our opinions. Not just hide behind barriers. A lot of women get all this crap from guys and they just walk away. But we're the kind of girls who are going to walk up to them and confront them and let them know what they're doing wrong.’ To her, clearly dirt is a method of confrontation. Her grungy hoodies and greasy hair aren’t about hiding away or concealing oneself but grabbing attention - ironically those pillars of normcore were actually an affront at the time, especially when up against a sea of nineties sickly sweet pastel knits and cheery logo t-shirts. Amber also enjoys toying with the fine line between attracting and shocking. She recounts spending a while covering her face in smudged lipstick, a play on the fact that a rouge pout is meant to attract attention to the mouth. ‘Yer look at it!’ she reminisces, while sticking out her lips.
The shock of their fellow pupils mirrors the outrage that has always surrounded unkempt women. Throughout the Middle Ages there was an idea that ugliness or dirt revealed a woman’s inner malice, sloppiness or outrageous libido. Ugly isn’t just a look but a lifestyle - ugly is as ugly does. That idea is rather forcefully summarised in Rustico di Filippo’s imaginatively titled poem from the 13th century Smelly Old Lady; ‘Everywhere you go, you take your bog along. You smelly, deceitful old lady….Why don’t you kick the bucket or get yourself buried, so that no one has to see or hear you again?’ Here, crucially, the lady is smelly because she is deceitful. Dirt is almost a punishment, a literal black mark that furnishes the morally loose. Perhaps the greatest emblem – and, depending how you see it, critique - of this is Tracy Emin’s My Bed. The theatre and curation that usually surrounds female sexuality and eroticism – artfully draped robes, lingerie, peek-a-boo – was stripped back to reveal the realities; used condoms, stained sheets. From a woman, this was an outrage. After all, while we like our women to be ‘hot’, chest-enhanced and underwear-clad, society has never actually smiled upon the freely sexual woman. She is scary. She has too much autonomy. She is a slut. Her male counterpart, a player (an age old inequality that continues today). Women’s sexuality is therefore somehow darker than men’s – just like our dirt is darker. Male dirt and sweat is rugged, sexy, masculine – expected.
In the 14th century, Italian author, poet and all-round misogynist, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote on the nature of women, ‘No other animal is less clean than she; not even pigs, wallowing in the mud, are as ugly as women.’ What would Boccaccio have made of Freja Beha Erichsen braless in her ripped white tank top and ragged jeans or Erin Wasson with her surfer girl hair, barely-there distressed sheer dresses and ornate inkings. Today, we don’t just tolerate the grubby look, we fetishise it as something bohemian and attractive. When Miu Miu showed girls with shiny hair stuck to their lipstick for S/S 14 it became an oddly sensual symbol of tarnished youth – the models in their woollen tights, crinkled around the ankles, and pastels became cheeky naughty school girls, dishevelled from kissing boys; a play on that age-old association between imperfection and misplaced morals. Other catwalks are filled with grungy wet-look hair and smudgy eyes. This is dishevelment and dirt as seduction.
Does the tolerance of ‘dirty’ come from an increased acceptance of female independence and sexuality? Are we fine with the notion that women can be aroused and unkempt? (After all, it’s no coincidence that the bedhead look emerged in the sixties when free love was the talk of town.) Not really. You’d imagine that even today Harper and Amber would still get shunned at school. Sure their fellow classmates may have got in on the dirty trend and would probably now be sporting smoky eye make-up, messy hair or ripped jeans, but they’d probably still gawp at a hairy armpit - that extreme unkemptness remains a symbol of social abnormality and extremism. Ironically, the dirt that the ‘Dirty Girls’ used with such comfort to shun the pressures society put on them has come to be an emblem of a ‘hot’ man-pleasing woman; sweaty, pouty, wet but still passive. We’re getting more comfortable with women being sexy but not independently, freely sexual. Sienna Miller, Kate Bosworth and countless other ‘Coachella babes’ in mud-stained wellies, distressed denims and ripped boy’s t-shirts have become our ‘Dirty Girls’. The dirt they champion is a compliment to men – it lets them know that girls are fun, carefree, up for a dance and a kiss, but still conventional, ‘normal’ even. The dirt that remains a taboo is one that’s just about women and not to do with seducing – female body hair and menstrual blood are unlikely to ever make it onto a runway or a best-dressed page. The clean up continues.