Defining vulgarity might bring a few strong connotations: it’s provocative, scandalous, extravagant, but it might be distasteful or kitschy. But who defines what “taste” actually is? The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined exhibition at Barbican Art Gallery challenges the perceptions about it – and rejoices in the ideas of the world’s best designers that push the boundaries of (good) taste.
The display features designs from such big names of the fashion world as Manolo Blahnik, Christian Dior, Karl Lagerfeld, Vivienne Westwood or Alexander McQueen. Over 120 exhibits push the audience to think what has been considered vulgar over the centuries, from the Renaissance to the modern times, and why some of these controversial, ground-breaking ideas could be labelled as such. The exhibition opened last month, and you’ve got two months – up until the 5th of February – to explore it. Showcasing how fashion has confronted the perception of taste at the royal courts and on the catwalks, The Vulgar calls out to the previous Barbican exhibits, such as Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion in 2010 and The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk in 2014.
An exhibition-maker Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips have worked together to explain “vulgarity” – starting from the literary definitions, through the relationship between haute-couture and pret-a-porter, to the events that helped to shape how the “good” and “bad” taste has evaluated over 500 years. It aims to show us that its definition can only fit one’s perception; to prove that, the display clashes the opinions of people with varied stances on it daringly, speaking from the perspective of Jonathan Swift, Coco Chanel, Samuel Johnson or Diana Vreeland.
The artefacts also contrast greatly – the curators collected 18th-century stomachers, mantuas with 2-metre-long overskirts and the modern designer clothing under one roof. Taking pop-culture and consumerism into consideration, they look closely at the inseparable relationship of fashion and the body, and the use of fabrics, textures and embellishments synonymous to good and bad taste over time. It convinces us that the fashion had played a massive role in changing what’s perceived as vulgar, and shows us how much people’s perceptions can expand – even over a century.
“With such a bold and brilliant concept, Judith Clark and Adam Phillips have created a highly original, redefining and hugely enjoyable exhibition about fashion past and present,” Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts at Barbican, commented. “Playing with juxtapositions, different themes and vistas, they’ve set the stage for visitors to wonder, ponder, question, reflect or just revel in why some costumes are considered vulgar, how that changes through time, context and experience.”
The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined. Open until 5th of February 2017, closed on the 24-26th of December. Tickets: standard: £14.50, concessions: £12, students (14-17 years old): £10, under 14s: free