Culture Spot: The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined

“Vulgarity tends to be something you buy but the vulgar reassures us that the one thing money cannot buy is class, and so it reminds us of our strange fear of being nothing special”

These are the words of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, co-curator of the Barbican’s current exhibit exploring conceptions of vulgarity and how these ideas have been evident in fashion throughout the ages.

“The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined” invites visitors to consider what is vulgar through exploring different aspects of vulgarity in fashion.

These aspects include the art of copying: Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian-emulating dresses from 1965 and high street giant H&M’s designer collaborations, the latter of which brings high fashion to the masses. These are two examples of something being vulgarised – YSL vulgarised Mondrian’s famous works, whereas H&M vulgarises the concept of high fashion by making it attainable to many.

6. The Vulgar_Fashion Redefined. Barbican Art Gallery, 2016. Photo Michael Bowles_Getty Images.JPG

Barbican Art Gallery, London 13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017 © Michael Bowles / Getty Images

The exhibit moves then to focus on the 18th century, a period of excess in the western world.Cue John Galliano’s work at Dior, where he championed an exaggerated silhouette and clear historical references. One moment that I particularly loved in the exhibit was the juxtaposition of a Galliano creation, an oversized pink coat (seen below), with another, streamlined pink coat, the work of Raf Simons at Dior in his AW 2014/15 collection. This clever positioning of the two outfits compared the drastically different approaches of two designers to one house, both still focusing on luxury.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined Installation Images
Barbican Art Gallery, London 13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017 © Michael Bowles / Getty Images

Galliano’s work features heavily throughout the exhibit, providing prime examples of vulgarity in every definition used by curators Phillips and Judith Clark. His work at Dior was fantasy grounded in clear historical influences, and he continually drew from royalty (see photograph below) and the 18th century for inspiration. Ironic design included his use of puritan collars, contrasting drastically with his love of excess and provocative design. He is a master of theatrics in fashion, and perhaps the ultimate champion of the vulgar.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined Installation Images
Barbican Art Gallery, London 13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017 © Michael Bowles / Getty Images

Popularity is vulgar. Pop culture, references to a specific zeitgeist. This has been a key trend in recent years, and Jeremy Scott’s designs for Moschino are prime examples of this. Scott takes on everything from Barbie to popular snacks and incorporates them bluntly into his designs. His Campbell’s Soup dress has Warhol-esque connotations: a huge claim from the designer to align himself with the master of pop culture.

The exhibit does not simply draw from fashion to understand the vulgar. A section exploring how The Bible was vulgarised when it was translated into Latin, and later into English, moves seamlessly into 1920s etiquette magazines and the now archaic view of ‘good taste’ and comportment. This serves to add to the over-arching concept of how vulgarity challenges good taste and makes us question ‘taste’ entirely.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined Installation Images

Barbican Art Gallery, London 13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017 © Michael Bowles / Getty Images

Vulgarity is unnatural, it is an idea of something trying to be that which it is not. As Phillips says,  “nothing is naturally, or essentially, or in itself, vulgar”. Vulgarity is an aspiration for something unattainable to you. The idea of the nouveau-riche, the upwardly mobile – anything or anyone that threatens a rigid class system or traditional ideas of ‘good taste’ – comes into play towards the end of the exhibit. Again ideas of appropriating the clothing of royalty is an overriding theme and ultimately the closing thought of the exhibit.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined Installation Images

Barbican Art Gallery, London 13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017 © Michael Bowles / Getty Images

The sheer amount of ideas and references packed into this exhibit serve to create a space that embodies ideas of vulgarity in a very physical demostration. I was struck by the smooth way in which each section transitioned into another, building up ideas of vulgarity as you move through each piece. Not only do the curators bring to question a lot of ideas, but the exhibit also celebrates the work of the multitude of designers on display. It is ultimately a celebration of these exquisite pieces, and of vulgarity as a means of subverting tradition.

I will leave it to Phillips to conclude with his words that: “Vulgarity amuses us because it makes us uneasy”.

 

All images courtesy of  Barbican Art Gallery, London 13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017 © Michael Bowles / Getty Images.

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