The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at Barbican

Regular readers will know that, on the whole, I like my exhibitions to be chronological. Whether looking at clothes, fashion, art, artefacts, household goods or photographs, I prefer to root everything in its historical (social, geographic, economic) context. My reviews of the corsets and shoe exhibitions at the V&A earlier this year expressed my dissatisfaction with  exhibits muddled up around tenuous themes. I mused that the Museum was becoming just another sensational opportunity;  and less an educational experience.

The Vulgar is an interesting exhibition in that, it too, rides roughshod over historical conventions and chooses a range of random categories for the 120 exhibits. But it does have structure, and one I could relate to. The structure is supplied by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips whose comments are the writing on the wall. I have studied, at MA level, psychoanalytic theory, and found it fairly accessible and interesting. But it is esoteric. Here is the introduction from the booklet (on my visit this was being handed out to school children).

“The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined is the first exhibition to foreground the challenging but at the same time utterly compelling question of how fashion revels in, exploits and ultimately overturns the prevailing limits of taste”.

The use of the psychoanalytic term ‘foreground’ is rather pretentious I felt, as well as an assumption that there might be a second or third exhibition along similar lines. Yes, taste is indeed a fascinating question, and I am interested in the topic. As I came home from the exhibition I saw a young woman dressed (I would say) tastelessly  – over-tight jeans, high heels and designer paper carrier-bag – but many would disagree.

Young woman in tight jeans
Young woman in tight jeans

But while I loved looking at the clothes I am not sure I really understand taste, or vulgarity, any better than I did before. You could call this an exhibition of fashion that has gone over the top – too big, too bright, too flashy, too expensive, too trivial, too revealing, too big, just too too too.

The entrance features a 1938 golden dress, based on a chasuble, made by ecclesiastical embroideriers for Schiaparelli.

1938 Schiaparelli coat and stole
1938 Schiaparelli coat and stole

We are asked to consider the acceptability of gold as a dress fabric.  Can a gold outfit be tasteful even though it is over the top? What if it is worn by royalty? The Pope? A rich woman? A film star? A rapper? A waitress?

  • There are lots of Westwood garments – the “Tits” top, the nude body suit with a strategic fig leaf, and the magnificent Watteau-inspired, sack-back green evening gown. Bravo Viv!
  • There is a Mondrian dress and several copies, including a jersey one, (in the shop).
  • Some astonishingly wonderful Galliano for Dior. Not exactly wearable, but clothes used to explore ideas, to celebrate artistry, to add something amazing to the human form. To me this is not the least bit “vulgar”.
    Galiano wedding dress
    Galliano wedding dress
  • A 1964 “topless bathing costume” that is exhibited here on a mannequin. Large Bridget Jones-type knickers are worn with thin shoulder straps. The notes think that putting the costume on a mannequin is somehow much more realistic than pinning it to the wall, as it was for a V&A exhibition in the 1970s.
    Rudi G 1964 topless swimsuit
    1964 Rudi Gernreich topless swimsuit
  • Pam Hogg – who I had not come across before – and her perfected cat suit
  • Garments that I consider somewhat tasteless, but I can see the appeal. This made me realise I divide fashion into four categories.  I would a) wear b) admire but never wear c) well done/interesting, but not my taste d) not very nice. Personally I like to look at clothes and appraise them in subtle ways – not with just a visceral – uggh, but engaging with the designer to appreciate their design. a) is a modern house of Schiaparelli, b) Moschino, obvs, c) is modern Lagerfeld for Chanel and d) is the Prada bra coat. This one got me. I really liked the style of the coat and the way it went from blue to pink via some interesting trimmings and strips. But I think it would have been much nicer without the black and white bra. I would have left well alone. But then it would not have had the shock factor, or got itself into the media.

I enjoyed the short film Speaking of the Vulgar – where Hussein Chalayan proves himself to be a dab hand at academic psycho reflection – as various international designers discuss vulgarity with Judith Clark the exhibition’s curator. They mainly seem a bit perplexed by the topic. I loved Stephen Jones’ contribution where he sees vulgarity as the spice, the salt and pepper in our food. Our food would be very dull without it. If he means experimentation, pushing the boundaries, playfulness, sexual allure, naughtiness and daring – I am with him. This is what fashion brings us – never just a way to clothe our bodies.

Basically this exhibition is too clever by half, in my view. The language and words are always pregnant with double meanings. The asides are too frequent and there to impress. The museum and concept of exhibition is problematised and dissected. For example “Fashion extends the body’s reach – its daring – and manages the distance between the viewer and the viewed”. Um, yes, but sort of so what?

However it is completely saved by the clothes which are marvellous, thrilling, entertaining and interesting. It cost me £12 to get in, but for me, it was worth every penny. Fascinating business, Fashion.

12 Responses

  1. I got an email for this and would love a visit but can’t imagine how it will fit. Thanks for your opinion on the exhibition – it looks very appealing.
    Incidentally I love the yellow Chanel coat with the fabulous lining and would definitely wear it!

    • Yes I liked it too. I love blouses and jacket linings in the same fabric. You could carry off these strong colours I think Kim.

  2. it looks fascinating. I am currently pinning emboidery to my pin boards- like the Galliano wedding dress, that personally I would never wear, but adore how it looks on others (but not fully able to buy into the big fat gypsy wedding dress yet – was any of this referenced or would it be seen as a bit of a sub-set?)……I liked your photo of the vulgar at the beginning, I am always amazed at how fit of clothes is judged by some currently, where I would see it as just too small (the way some skirts are worn that all curves from navel to thigh are very obvious)…….but then life would be incredibly boring without the variety

  3. Just listening to Woman’s Hour discussion on this as I read your blog…for me class is a key construct in the meaning of vulgar. A confident superior bourgeois person can use it to dissociate herself (from such as skinny jean lady). My working class mother would use the word common in a similar way. Taste is also dancing with ‘nice’ for you isn’t it? I also think the exhibits look irresistible and I shall be going a.s.a .p. thanks to your taste-r 😚

    • Thank you for noting that I use nice as tasteful – yes I guess that is what I mean. I like to think I can appreciate designs that I would never wear myself. I also try to appreciate things that I don’t like, ie not my taste, yet I still see the point and artistry in them.

  4. I too use those same 4 categories for judging clothes, Kate! We can admire the idea and thoughts and hours of labor that go into the weird and wonderful but never have to wear it (or afford it). If a garment reads, “Hello Sailor” and crosses over into hoochie mama territory…it is tasteless. If a garment is so innovative that we remember it for decades…well that is truly a work of art and genius albeit not wearable either. Spice is right…we need the bizarre to shake us up and “foreground” us that fashion is not dead, just snoozing. Thank you for sharing for those of us 6000 miles from such exhibits!

  5. I went to visit this just yesterday – it was exhausting! Trying to wrap my head around the interpretations and explanations and wondering if all of the designers had put as much thought into the designing of said vulgar pieces as was put into the deconstruction of them for the exhibit; I wondered if Pam Hogg, for example, may have just fancied using a bit of toile de jouy because she liked it. Enjoyed it though, very much, although, unlike the unwearable but exquisite work of the Galliano, Westwood and Lacroix pieces in the big fat Show Off room, I thought the more wearable Chanel in the shopping mall all looked a bit disappointing in the “flesh” – a bit bobbled and worn. The feature I remember most about the reporting of that supermarket show was that the audience was encouraged to go help themselves to goods – some even fighting over items – only to have security guards tell them as they left that they could not leave the building with those goods. Not sure if that was all just a part of the show, or if humiliation of your audience might be considered vulgar, or if it merely demonstrates that the audience can be made to behave as if they are? Thought provoking in any case.

  6. Very interesting and well-written review, Kate. I am not sure that I have anything to contribute. It’s funny…when I was younger I might have thought of more things as vulgar, but at this age I appreciate everything in its own way. What I probably find least “tasteful” is conspicuous consumption – expensive handbags with labels all over them, which I never understand the appeal of – and provocative things worn in unsuitable locales (e.g. tight, knit miniskirts and candy-coloured four inch heels in the office (which I actually saw in my building today)). Generally though, I like seeing people “act out” with fashion. Gianni and I have a secret code phrase that we use to communicate to the other to look at something spectacular that we see on someone. Maybe Italy has conditioned me. I certainly love it when on of those special Italian dressers passes me by. PS The Watteau-inspired gown is to die for and I am with you – would love to wear the modern house of Schiap gown. I think I’ve even pinned that one.

  7. Joyce Latham

    I’m tired, but I must comment that just the other day I went to our art museum …featuring an exhibit on steampunk. Ekkk….well the girl behind the desk made the mistake of asking me what I thought…ekkk….it ended with the two of us trying to explain what we thought , her claiming not to know anything and me guessing! I babbled on…oh…ekkk…— and worse! There was two young women there who were suppose to be there to help explain the mystery of steampunk….and they talked to each other the whole time while I was trying to view the exhibit, ( really distracting) it was sooooo annoying!
    You are very lucky to have such fabulous exhibits…and thanks so much for shareing them with your evaluation …
    Tacky = too much ….fashion as art…totally get it…the body is the canvas.
    Wonderful post as always.
    Ps…must tell you this little story.
    Both grandkids seemed to really love the painting I have just made for their mom and dad. Later on I asked the three year old if he thought I could have done anything better and he said ” yes, make mommy some real legs” 😂 Ha ha…too funny

  8. Thanks for reviewing this Kate. I missed so many great exhibitions in London last month, its a boost to read such a good review of this one.

  9. Funny enough I just finished reading Fashion: A Philosophy by Lars Svendsen – a very interesting read. He refers a lot to Bourdieu’s Distinction of Taste (although he appreciates the limits of Bourdieu’s theory) thesis in trying to understand how fashion (the search for the new) becomes fashion. In the end my understanding was that it is for the sake of novelty to distinguish one class from another. He ends with the rise of individuality in the modern era where the lines between what is vulgar and tasteful are blurred as people seek to not be unfashionable , but being unfashionable is a fashion in itself. My words are not doing his book any justice but its a really good read.

    I am a lot more open minded about fashion (and life in general) than I used to be. I am not sure that I find anything ‘vulgar’ anymore – perhaps Lady Gaga’s meat dresses etc have desensitized me. I would definitely wear all those outfits at least once 🙂

    • Thank you for mentioning this book Hila. I may have to read it (when I get bored of knitting!). I don’t think we really find appearances vulgar anymore as we have all become more open minded through travel, media, globalisation etc. I think class is probably much more important. I keep thinking of middle class mummies in trainers and jogging pants compared to working class girls wearing the same thing, and think that both look great if they have style and a good figure, and both awful if they don’t.

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