Potent, provocative and sometimes shocking, the word vulgar often conjures up negative connotations. It might make you wonder, what might be discovered at a fashion exhibition devoted to this naughty notion, for the term can be interpreted in a multitude of ways.
This is what Judith Clarke – the curator of The Barbican’s latest exhibition, and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips have focused on – pushing boundaries and exploring the wider concept and background of what has been considered vulgar in fashion throughout the ages.
The exhibition presents over 120 exhibits of well known fashion designers, including Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, Iris van Herpen, Pam Hogg, Stephen Jones, Manolo Blahnik and the inimitable Hussein Chalayan.
This thought-provoking collection of contemporary fashion evokes the question that almost anything can be vulgar. No one has the eligibility to define vulgarity, as it depends on an individuals point of view. Some may have deemed the rebellious punk movement to be the ultimate expression of vulgarity, whereas the scandalous Johnny Rotten himself would have balked at the sight of a neatly pressed smart suit – perceiving it to be a tasteless symbol of conformity.
Good taste changes with time, but vulgarity is not synonymous with bad taste. It is bold, unapologetic and shameless. Vulgarity always exaggerates, never retreats. It is committed to the concept of unashamed enjoyment – the theatre of ambition and a celebration of all that is kitsch.
Similar to the common depiction by traditional fairy tales, the exhibition plays with the idea that pleasure is viewed as vulgar, whereas restraint is a virtue. Nevertheless the curator appears not to judge, and simply provides a mesmerising visual display to provoke observations of the meaning of vulgarity within fashion.
Fashion without vulgarity would be dull. The vulgar is intriguing, experimental and pushes boundaries – as the renowned milliner to the stars, Stephen Jones states, “Vulgarity is the salt and pepper of fashion. We must never forget that vulgarity is tremendous fun!”
High fashion is at constant play with vulgarity – think back to Chanel´s supermarket staged fashion show. Note that all the products in this fabulous shopping emporium were especially crafted for this purpose – garishly bearing Chanel labels. Some of them were presented at the exhibition and the rest probably sold as precious collectors items.
This vibrant catwalk show even displayed ‘vulgar’ ripped and holed items of (classically demure) tweed clothing, purposefully crafted by the couturiers to conjure up a sense of devilish disarray.
Another peculiarity of the vulgar is pretence – another direction explored by the exhibition. Be it someone pretending to be something they are not and failing at some crucial detail, or a dress desperately trying to give off the look of labour-intensive couture, when it’s merely a horrifically generic mass of factory printed fabric.
One of the exhibition’s themes directly explores the relationship between fashion and the body. This is achieved through over exposure using lace and body stockings to simultaneously reveal and conceal the body – as demonstrated by Louis Vuitton and Pam Hogg; and by the exaggerated body, where the body is explored and its erogenous zones amplified. This particular look is demonstrated by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s tits top and Belgian avant-garde designer Walter van Beirendonck’s elephant skirt outfit – accentuated by an oversized hat courtesy of Stephen Jones.
Vulgarity is the unrestricted joie de vivre – when it comes to fashion, it’s definitely better to be vulgar than boring…
“The Vulgar – Fashion Redefined” at The Barbican Art Gallery in London is open till 5th February 2017.