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The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at The Barbican

18 December 2016 | Belphoebe New

What does it mean to be vulgar? By basing an entire exhibition around such an ambiguous term, The Barbican were setting themselves quite a challenge. The result is an exhibition that whilst certainly broad in its reach and appeal, ultimately asks even more questions than it answers.

This exhibition is primarily about fashion, but it is tied together by philosophical musings from psychologist Adam Phillips about what exactly the vulgar is. And, as it turns out, the vulgar is all around us. An aspiration for the pleasures of privilege, a copy, the scandal of good taste, the cunning of bad taste, or just what happens when something becomes popular. For the viewer, the vulgar becomes a mode for understanding a cultural shift, a way of surveying the behaviours and attitudes of different periods in history.  
 
As you walk into the exhibition, you expect to be overwhelmed with a sea of garish pieces of clothing that will shock and offend. The reality is dark walls and a first selection of gowns that don’t appear to be immediately shocking. There are beautifully embellished 1920s pieces that may well be considered the height of classiness now but that were actually perceived as daring and outlandish in their time, suggesting that even the tiniest embellishment and change in fit could be seen as scandalous. Interestingly, the Barbican have chosen to include many previous fashion exhibits that were scorned or criticised in their day, a kind of shrine to the rejected and people’s perceptions of bad taste.


Photo credit: Michael Bowles

Fortunately, the prints become more colourful, the material more sparkly and the shapes of the dresses more exaggerated. There are some fantastic examples of unique, unashamedly garish outfits, such Pam Hogg’s headdresses and knickers pressed with colourful flowers and a gold-plated embellished wedding dress by Christian Lacroix. Other pieces to look out for are an incredible pink man’s suit covered in children’s book illustrations and a circus ringmaster outfit depicting an elephant’s trunk rising out of a skirt, both by rebellious designer Walter Van Beirendonck. By playing with prints and extravagant silhouettes, we explore how these designers rewrote fashion’s rules and made the loud and the garish more acceptable.


Photo credit: Michael Bowles

The exhibition also deals with the idea of sexuality as revealed by clothing, and the notion that the vulgar reveals something we are trying to hide. A Vogue editorial photographed by Nick Knight shows models morphing into sex dolls, whilst nude body stockings by Vivienne Westwood make daring religious allusions with Adam and Eve-esque perspex leaves on the crotch. A perfect example of vulgarity and sexuality intertwining are the Manolo Blahnik thigh-high shoes designed for musician Rihanna, secured together with a gloriously tacky diamanté belt. Rather than revealing everything, to be vulgar is to hint at the body underneath in a variety of creative and cunning ways.


Photo credit: Michael Bowles

Throughout the exhibition it feels as if the concept of the vulgar is something that began as an indicator of the lower class or coarseness, and has instead become something appropriated by some of the world’s wealthiest fashion houses. We see objects from a 2015 Chanel catwalk show set in a supermarket, including Chanel logo-adorned packs of sardines and paint brushes, a mixture of high fashion and the everyday. Although the pieces are beautiful and it’s an imaginative idea, it’s difficult to see how this would ever be perceived as vulgar except to the very highest levels of society. Similarly, we see that materials such as denim, originally worn almost exclusively by the lower classes, have been featured in fully denim 90s inspired ensembles in Miu Miu’s Spring 2013 collection. The exhibition explores how the ideas of fashion and class intersect, and as designer Zandra Rhodes mentions in one of the exhibition’s videos, ‘the vulgar is of the people.’ Increasingly, as you walk through the exhibition, it feels as if being vulgar becomes a type of performance, a costume to wear, rather than something inherent.


Photo credit: Michael Bowles
 
There really is no shortage of fashion innovation and imagery in this exhibition, yet as you walk through it is difficult to understand how each piece fits in to its particular area. The amount of choice is sometimes overwhelming, and the vague philosophical structure assigned to each room does not always tie it together. At times you find yourself looking around and wondering exactly what makes a particular piece vulgar, but with some structured historical context this would be clearer. 18th century corset dresses with extravagant netted skirts stand alongside some of the 21st century’s most scandalous catwalk pieces, which feels like a missed opportunity for the Barbican to make a clear point about how the definition of vulgar is affected by changing perceptions over history.
 
It’s rare for an exhibition to base itself around a certain theme rather than an individual or period in history, and the Barbican should be commended for their ambition. However, at times The Vulgar feels too far-reaching and broad. The problem is, as they suggest throughout the exhibition, the question of what is vulgar is incredibly subjective. Still, for fashion-lovers this exhibition has a huge amount to offer, with daring, elaborate and imaginative pieces around every corner, representing the most innovative ideas and rebellious minds in fashion history.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined runs until 5 February 2017. Tickets are £14.50 with concessions available. Find out more here.
 
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