‘Tramps’ Night Out’: Where do we draw the line on fancy dress?

Liverpool John Moores University’s (LJMU) Trampolining Club has apologised following the publication of photographs from their most recent ‘tramps’ night out’. The event, which has been an annual tradition in the society since 2014, encourages students to dirty themselves and dress in ripped clothes, adopting the stereotypical appearance of a tramp.

Another day, another controversy.

I’m surprised that this event has gone on for so many years without attracting a storm of negativity. It was only in 2015 that the University of East Anglia banned a Mexican restaurant from handing out sombreros to students at their Freshers’ Fair. The same happened at the University of Birmingham; Chiquito was forbidden from handing out any more sombreros, despite already giving many away. I walked away from that stand rather disappointed. Both Student Unions branded the promotional move as racist and offensive, but I disagree.

The restaurants celebrate Mexican food through the dishes they serve, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to go further, celebrating Mexican clothing, too? And why should my race or ethnic origins prevent me from wearing a sombrero as a hat, devoid of cultural connotations? Am I not allowed to enjoy Mexican culture because I’m not Mexican? Isn’t that racist in itself? Am I forbidden from coming to Sports’ Night as a Mariachi band member because it features the dreaded sombrero? But am I allowed to come as Juan Aguacate, a luchador from the video game Guacamelee! because of my love and respect for the character? Where do we draw the line?

On that note, why shouldn’t students organise an event in which group members dress as tramps? Other nights out go on without conflict; in my time at University, I saw people dressed as sexy nuns, inappropriate vicars, chavs and adult-babies without the stir of onlookers. These students looked like cartoon characters – like walking stereotypes. Their costumes were so over-the-top, so abhorrent that the people they were based on couldn’t possibly exist. The same should be said for the ‘tramps’ night out’. I have used this word – tramp – throughout this post because tramps – as the Trampolining Club envision them, based on their fancy dress – do not exist. A tramp is an archaic and insulting stereotype that does not account for the millions of individuals without homes. The tramp has dirty nails, unwashed and tattered clothes and unkempt beards like they’re straight out of Waiting for Godot. I repeat: they are stereotypes, not realistic interpretations of homeless people, some of which may well look like tramps. Others, on the other hand, have access to showers, to decent clothing, to scouring pads for their nails. To suggest that the Trampolining Club’s portrayal of tramps is offensive because they believe it’s a realistic portrayal of the homeless is naïve and insulting.

Dressing up as tramps may even raise awareness for the real homeless living on the streets.

That was my opinion on the matter: people should dress as they like. Unfortunately, this changed when I saw that members of the group had worn signs asking for money in return for sexual favours. One sign read ‘50p for a bounce on my bed’, and another ‘give me your change and I’ll change your night’.

I think I’ve found where the line should be drawn.

It’s one thing to dress as a stereotypical tramp; I see that as inoffensive and harmless. However, suggesting that tramps would perform sexual favours for money belittles the struggles of real homeless people. It takes a step too far. Unfortunately, this is easily done. “We were only having a laugh!” I can practically hear them cry. I very much doubt that the Trampoline Club members intended to offend; their signs were just jokes. That’s why it’s so important to call out inappropriate behaviour. These students need to learn where to draw the line, and so do we.

What is apparent from the LMJU Student Union’s actions is that fancy dress will be taken more seriously. They’re promising to establish guidelines detailing which fancy dress themes are permitted, which is important for avoiding future controversies. This is a good thing. While I believe in the freedom to dress as we please, this must happen in a respectful manner. Stereotypes are often unavoidable with fancy dress, so we must determine where to draw the line, and what constitutes as a joke taken too far.

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