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.
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.
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”.
- 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.
- 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.