The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined

The Barbican Centre Art Gallery celebrated bad taste in their most recent Fashion Exhibtion The Vulgar: Redefining Fashion and challenging perceptions of taste in fashion.

Taste, and what is and is not tasteful, is a much-debated topic within fashion. James Laver wrote a book in 1945 titled Taste and Fashion: From the French Revolution to the Present Day, in which he analyses how fashion can change its meaning from decade to decade. He states: ‘The same costume will be Indecent ten years before its time, Shameless five years before its time, Outre (daring) one year before its time, Smart (in its own time), Dowdy one year after its time, Ridiculous twenty years after its time, Amusing thirty years after its time, Quaint fifty years after its time, Charming seventy years after its time, Romantic one-hundred years after its time, Beautiful one-hundred-and-fifty years after its time.’ In other words, take any garment. While its wearer may believe they are wearing the latest fashions, their peers think they are distasteful yet years later, they may be seen as a fashion victim and later still a fashion icon. Clothes are then romanticized through time until fans of vintage or retro fashion pick out old items with a rose-tinted nostalgia.  


This exhibition, co-curated by Judith Clark, curator and Professor of Fashion and Museology at London College of Fashion and her husband, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, examines how certain fashions have been seen as vulgar. This is their second fashion exhibition and collaboration together, the first being The Concise Dictionary of Dress at the V&A’s Blythe House in 2010. Clark states that this fashion project is ‘as much about a work and about western society, as it is about fashion itself’[2]. This collaboration between psychoanalysis and fashion curation is present throughout the exhibition, with reference to many theorist such as Bourdieu’s study of class and Walter Benjamin.

The exhibition begins with A series of different definitions of the word ‘vulgar’, including an eighteenth century definition of vulgar penned by Samuel Johnson which is accompanied by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1974) definitions of vulgar, vulgarism, vulgarity and vulgarly. Philips himself, in one of the definitions says: “Vulgarity is wanting something that you can’t be or can’t have.” All these definitions at the beginning are vital in the understanding of the rest of the exhibition, as it primarily focuses on the notions of what constitutes good and bad taste; who are the tastemakers?
The rest of the exhibition showcases over 120 stunning objects, ranging from historical costumes displayed side by side couture and ready-to-wear looks, with contributions from leading contemporary designers such as Christian Dior, Pam Hogg, Agent Provocateur, Elsa Schiaparelli, Philip Treacy and Vivienne Westwood to name a few. The pieces on display span around 500 years of fashion, from the Renaissance to present day, weaving together, as previously mentioned, historic dress, couture and ready-to-wear fashion, textile ornamentation, but also alongside these displayed clothing are photography, examples of literature, such as Victorian etiquette guides for women, contemporary magazine fashion editorials and articles and a video featuring Zandra Rhodes, Walter van Beirendonck, Christian Lacroix and Stephen Jones discussing what ‘the vulgar’ means to them. This video can be viewed in YouTube via this link:

The exhibition takes over both floors of the Barbican gallery, with each room taking a different theme, or interpretation of vulgarity. These range from Nymphs, a room dedicated to classical dress inspired by ancient Rome and Greece, contrasted by The Shopping Centre, which looks at Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel Autumn/ Winter 2014/15 collection set in a supermarket, from Exposed Bodies to Exaggerated Bodies.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the gallery is along a corridor on the first floor of the gallery. Interestingly, it was a section that many ignored and walked past. Although only a very small space was dedicated to this topic, there was a space discussing Fashion in Museums, with original letters debating the first fashion exhibition at the V&A titled “Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” in 1971. Clark has written extensively in defense of having fashion collections and exhibitions in museums, such as Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971 and it was fascinating having it addressed within a fashion exhibition.

Overall, The Vulgar: Redefining Fashion brought together an eclectic range of clothing, textiles, photographs and literature discussing how fashion is subjective to taste and time period. This cross-disciplinary exploration covers curation, fashion in museums, cultural and societal understandings of taste in regards to dress. The use of space is amazing, as is the range of designers and pieces of display. There is an accompanying book for around £35 of the same title as the exhibition. The previously mentioned book, Exhibiting Fashion: Before and After 1971 is another useful book that was available in the gift shop, for those interested in Fashion Curation, which is available from Amazon etc.

 [1] Judith Clark, The Vulgar: Redefining Fashion, p8

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