Exhibition Review: ‘The Vulgar, Fashion Redefined’ at the Barbican

  • Words: Nicky Charlish

What do we mean by vulgarity?  In the fashion world, this concept has always been fluid: in the 1920s the short, flat-chested dresses of the Jazz Age would have seemed vulgar – if not downright immoral – to elderly corseted ladies raised in the Victorian era. In the 1970s, mothers who’d flashed their stocking-tops as they whirled their skirts in 1950s dance-halls were horrified by their punk daughters’ safety-pins and ripped tights. In addition, the 1960s raised the game by ushering-in a period of fashion when all restraints were off: the human body could be explored – and exposed – like never before, with Soho and the King’s Road being the main testing-grounds for new fashion concepts from designers such as Mary Quant and Vivienne Westwood.  Now, this exhibition gives us a style-laden chance to reflect on the vulgar and what we mean by it.

Walter van Beirendonck, Fall/Winter 2010/2011. Hat: Stephen Jones © Ronald Stoops

Walter van Beirendonck, Fall/Winter 2010/2011. Hat: Stephen Jones © Ronald Stoops

What do we have here? Two floors showing the enthralling and energetic raising of two jewel-encrusted fingers to concepts of restraint in dress arguably going back to the 19th century, but owing their origins to the Puritanism arising from the 16th century change of religion in Europe, giving rise to the idea of vulgarity, of being showy, unrestrained and ultimately sinful. The exhibition has been conceived by exhibition-maker Judith Clark (currently professor of Fashion and Museology at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London) and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips (formerly Principal Child Psychotherapist at London’s Charing Cross Hospital). Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, greets it with enthusiasm: ‘I am so thrilled that we are staging The Vulgar at the Barbican. 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. 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 exhibition builds on previous Barbican exhibitions such as Jam: Style+Music+Media in 1996, The House of Viktor and Rolf in 2008, Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion in 2010 and more recently The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk in 2014.’

Eighteenth Century Court Mantua (Robe and Petticoat), 1748–1750. Courtesy Fashion Museum Bath

Eighteenth Century Court Mantua (Robe and Petticoat), 1748–1750. Courtesy Fashion Museum Bath

What especially grabs our attention here? Early on in the exhibition, a brass and leather shopping basket by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel gives us a jokey accessory which sends up the whole concept of shopping. A ‘Souper Dress’ circa 1966, patterned with soup cans based on Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s soup can paintings, is a reminder of fashion’s mould starting to break 50 years ago. Nearer the present, black and gold high heels by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton catch our eyes, as does a brown and gold sparkly dress enfolded by a matching cape by Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy.  Nearer the body, Vivienne Westwood gives us her Eve bodysuit complete with fig leaf. The inflatable lips hat for John Galliano created by Stephen Jones brings to mind Salvador Dali’s portrait of actress May West which the Surrealist Edward James to have a lip sofa made based upon it. John Galliano for Christian Dior gives us a black dress with an outsize white collar as if intentionally subverting this emblem of Puritan dress by giving them a larger-than-life combined shape. And Manolo Blahnik, with Rihanna, gives us a magnificent thigh boots and belt combination complete with a splendid diamante buckle.

Hierarchy in dress still remains. Thirty years ago, the door policies of London’s New Romantic clubs, policed by such figures as Steve Strange and Leigh Bowery, were as tough as any rules for admission to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. Today, we see dress codes in action at New York’s annual Met Ball and the Oscars’ Red Carpet. But can we still talk about vulgarity? Given the disappearance of puritanical concepts of restraint, not in any meaningful sense. Yet, despite social changes, it’s a concept which never quite seems to go away, even though we can’t tie it down. We can’t accurately define what vulgarity is. We can’t put it in a laboratory test tube or prove it like a mathematical theorem. Subjectivity will always play a part in defining it. All we can do is argue about it from our own perceptions. Meanwhile, this exhibition gives us some visual excitement to stimulate our thoughts and feelings, and to endlessly entertain us.

‘The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined’ exhibition runs at the Barbican’s Art Gallery from 13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017. For more info, visit: www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery.