"The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined" at The Barbican is one of those - rare - fashion exhibitions that manages to be equally clever and spectacular. One could definitely enjoy it. Be it only for the exquisite selection of garments featured, but there is so much more to it.
The show explores the concept of 'the vulgar' as it unfolds in fashion, covering all the nuances and inherent contradictions that inevitably emerge. Curator Judith Clark has worked in tandem with acclaimed psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Philips, to craft a show that accompanies visitors along a sophisticated cultural trip and offers an opportunity to reflect deeply on something so close to everyone's experience.
Starting from the definition of vulgarity with almost scientific rigour, the theme is progressively unpacked. Each section highlights a different angle to it, supported by compelling synopses paired with garments that clearly illustrate them. Continuous travels between cultures and historic periods happen seamlessly, and contribute in further exposing the complex multilayered nature of 'the vulgar'.
You are going to love the feeling of walking out inspired by a journey that has made you think of complicated stuff in a simple way. The topic is largely discussed in abstract terms - yet at no point does it feel too ignorant to fully appreciate, which is particularly exciting in the context of trends. Some trends emerge as a result of social phenomenon, but others are the very manifestation of them. It is a spider web of interconnections, yet any exhibition that attempts an analytical approach feels very refreshing.
Here is an account of the organic trail of thoughts that occurred throughout (spoiler alert!).
"Vulgar" as a word originally describes the ordinary, the common people... so how is it that it became a label for almost an insult? Something of inferior status?
"The word 'vulgar' is used to police boundaries of taste. Fashion is where good and bad taste mix and match".
Is the imitation of classic Greek standards noble or vulgar? YSL's iconic Mondrian Dress, does it elevate fashion or degrade art?
Two gowns by Margiela are next to each other, both featuring a photographic print of a draped fabric - but one is by John Galliano's pret-a-porter collection, the other from the cobranding with H&M. Is that vulgar or smart?
Everyone wants to be well-dressed and have good taste. But what happens when fashion democratises and the elite desire to keep distinguishing themselves from the masses? Excess and extravagance have been there forever, from Versailles to today's runaways. So, what makes that extravagance "beautiful" but not "ridiculous"? Too much. In-your-face. Ask Chiara Ferragni and your local grocer to comment on Gucci's loafers.
"Well-dressed people do not often dress in what is called 'the height of fashion', as that is generally left to dandies and pretenders. You might have the costliest attire (...) and yet be far from well dressed" - from "Etiquette for ladies" in The Lady Book of Manners (1880s).
“The Vulgar makes us reconsider what we have in common and what we want to have in common. It reveals the violence of taste". What is and what isn't acceptable. But for who?
It's all in the eyes of the beholder. Perhaps 'vulgar' and 'beauty' are two names for the same thing - there is something sublime about it. Steven Miesel, La Chapelle, Nick Knight, Tom Ford, Mario Testino: they all play with extremes and expose sexual exaggeration. Yet, is nudity in itself vulgar? Or is it about what you chose to cover or show? How does it all relate to pleasure?
Vulgar is what is 'too popular' - Jeremy Scott's Moschino proves the opposite? Or 'too common': so, what changes between an unbranded pair of jeans and one by Rihanna and Manolo Blahnik? Should we not then look for inspiration in traditional costumes? Lacroix disagrees.
Lastly - what happens to the vulgar when the desire of baroque is the norm? How to really and fully explain the frenzy around Iris Van Herpen?
Towards the end, a different feeling emerges, almost as if you are being addressed directly as a viewer. 'So what do you think now? Where does you taste tip over into judgement?'. As much as the exhibition seems to establish the very liquid nature of vulgarity, it also shows how it is about "them-and-us", it is a divisive notion that builds on perceived hierarchies of status - what is acceptable and what isn't. And is not disjoint from the 'fear for the unknown'.
"People call things vulgar when they are new to them" - Mary Quant,1967.
Now, in regards of the infamous furry Gucci loafers I am sure everyone can smile about it. But in light of the recent political turmoil and social catastrophes, the show is a great opportunity to bring those issues closer and perhaps interpret them better, even from such an unexpected angle.
The exhibition runs till February 5th, be sure to check it out.