The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined; Barbican Art Gallery; 13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017; © Michael Bowles / Getty Images.
We know that one woman’s gaucherie can be another’s idea of glamour. This push and pull played out at the Spring 2017 collections where revealing looks competed for attention with more buttoned-up styles. The dynamic is also central to a new exhibition that opens today at the Barbican Centre in London. “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined” explores the idea that “taste is a mobile concept.”
The organizers of the show, curator Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, argue that vulgarity is not something that is inherent to an object, but imposed upon it. “Vulgarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder,” Clark writes in the catalogue. “It is an emblem of artificiality.” It is also a knee-jerk reaction to the unknown: “People,” said Mary Quant in 1967, “call things vulgar when they are new to them.”
Organized into sections like “Showing Off,” “Puritan,” “Extreme Bodies,” “Too Popular,” “Impossible Ambition,” and “Common,” the show proposes 11 ways of looking at the vulgar, and includes objects from the Renaissance to today. This vast span, Clark tells Vogue.com, “is absolutely essential as the exhibition does not point the finger. It does not say, ‘This is vulgar.’ It says: ‘If a copy of something is vulgar, or is vulgarizing an original, does that also apply to Madame Grès imitating the drapery of a Grecian statue? Or a YSL Mondrian dress? . . . If the 18th century was about decadent excess, what are we quoting, when we quote it?’ ”
This is an exhibit that will raise, as well as answer, questions, which brings us back to Clark’s premise that the definition of the vulgar “is more about the beholder” than that which is beholden. Its provocation goes beyond aesthetics; whether you think excess is bad—or bad, meaning good—is but part of a larger story. “There is always anxiety around fashion,” Clark explained via email, about “its worth, its divisiveness, the kinds of beauty it proposes, how it relates to class, who fashion excludes, but at the same time, how the designers incorporate these issues into their often exquisite designs [is fascinating].” Prepare to be amazed.
“The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined,” is on view at the Barbican Art Gallery from October 13, 2016 to February 5, 2017.
Eighteenth century court mantua, 1748-1750.
John Galliano for Christian Dior. Spring/Summer 2005, Haute Couture.
Walter Van Beirendonck. Hat: Stephen Jones Autumn/Winter 2010-2011.
Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. Autumn/Winter 2014-2015, Ready-to-Wear, Chanel Patrimoine Collection, Paris.
Jeremy Scott for Moschino. Autumn/Winter 2014-2015, Ready-to-Wear.
Prada, Spring/Summer 2014 collection.
Pam Hogg, Future Past/War and Peace collection, Spring/Summer 2014, Ready-to-Wear.