Thursday, 9 February 2017

Vulgar and Proud

 “Vulgar is something we make, nothing is essentially or in itself, vulgar”

Is just one of the many meditations and definitions of ‘The Vulgar’ presented by The Barbican’s major winter exhibition. Curated by exhibition designer, curator and fashion historian Judith Clark in partnership with psychoanalyst, writer and her husband Adam Phillips the exhibition feels like a conversation between both themselves and us, the visitor.

Tickets and Exhibition Guide 

From the moment we enter we are asked to examine our views of what it is to be vulgar and who decides? The multiple definitions provoke discussion as opposed to fixing the meaning, leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether the objects on display are vulgar at all.

The exhibition begins with a question I am used to asking myself on a regular basis “How much gold makes an object vulgar?” by juxtaposing a scrap of Renaissance Italian gold monastic dress with the 1937 Schiaparelli gold rope dress inspired by similar designs. 

Gold Monk's Ecclesiastical Fragment and Schiaparelli Gold Gown
Credit Michael Bowles, Getty Images, The Barbican 

The questions continue in my head:
“Does religion absolve vulgarity or is the excess of the cloth at odds with the teachings of the Bible?”

“Is it borrowing from religious dress for fashion or the head to toe gold that makes the Schiaparelli dress vulgar?”

“Are we only supposed to see one of these items as vulgar?”

“The vulgar, like fashion, is always a copy. It invites us to imagine the original and exposes what has been lost in translation”

In the first section we are asked to consider fashion and ‘the copy’, a theme that re-emerges in different guises throughout the exhibition. It would have been easy to show fashion ‘fakes’ in this section, instead the curators draw our attention to modern copies of Greek classical styling on one hand, and the transfer of a Mondrian artwork onto a dress on the other.

The Mondrian dress display showed how copies and copies of copies are created and highlighted the tension between art and fashion. It showed the original designer dress, a later version by the same designer and a cheaper modern ‘copy’ which co-incidentally was also available to buy in the gift shop.

“Once something can be copied, it can be made available and become popular and the available and popular can be stigmatized as vulgar”

Barbican The Vulgar Mondrian Dress
Mondiran Dress Originals, Copies, Mirror Images
Image Via Londonist 

The inclusion of historical dress serves to remind us that accusations of vulgarity in clothing can be traced back a long way. The 18th Century Court Mantuas could be seen as vulgar because of their sheer size, and equally in that society, a person could be seen as vulgar for wearing one if they were not of the correct status or rank.

The 18th Century dresses are displayed alongside modern designer dresses that play with size and scale, an association I made about the Vulgarity of this the cost of making these garments, it is not just the visual size that screams ‘look at me’ but the amount of fabric and workmanship.

“Vulgarity is wanting something you can’t be or can’t have”

For rich people displays of wealth such as this may not be considered vulgar, they have the money. It is only when someone has seemingly overstretched themselves financially or is seen to have ‘ideas above their station’ that items become vulgar.

More than anything it made me realize that the judgment of ‘vulgar’ is a sleight of hand, a way to keep the common people where they are, what is vulgar on a working class girl is not on a debutante.

Court Mantua Dress The Vulgar at The Barbican
An 18th Century Court Mantua Dress
Image via Londonist 

“It exposes the cover up of good taste and the cunning of bad taste”

Continuing with conceptions of taste, the pop art section seemed to me the epitome of deliberate ‘bad taste’ and the kind of dressing I love, there was lots of Jeremy Scott for Moschino and of course the famous Campbell’s soup repurposed as a dress (in an echo of the Mondrian Dress before perhaps)

The mixing of popular brands, symbols and icons into bold bright fashion is certainly at odds with traditional conceptions of good taste – however, if you wear these items knowingly, does it become less vulgar? Are these items “So bad they’re good” or does it depend on who’s wearing them?

Moschino Jeremy Scott Dresses The Barbican
Moschino by Jeremy Scott
Credit Michael Bowles, Getty Images, The Barbican 

“Vulgar is a term used by the guardians of taste”

The inclusion of the Chanel Shopping Centre crystallised many of themes of the exhibition for me.  The catwalk show directly engages with high fashion as vulgar, but in a very knowing way.  It featured models in classic Chanel looks; tweed suits styled with lots of gold chains, high top trainers and patent bags (that owes more than a little to Moschino).

But you would never wear head to toe Chanel to go to the supermarket, would you?  That would be vulgar.  Karl Lagerfeld knows that, as do the assembled audience of fashion buyers and VIPs, and it’s that knowledge that allows them to be in on the joke.

With everything from wire baskets to bottles of water branded Chanel, the show was also a comment on designer brand diversification and dilution, something the exhibition engages with by displaying a number of props from the show as if they were important museum artifacts, which they may become in future years.

Chanel AW14 Fashion Show
Image via

 From Catwalk to Gallery
Credit Michael Bowles, Getty Images, The Barbican 

“Vulgarity is in the eye of the beholder”

An exhibition focused on ‘the vulgar’ could not do so without examining the body and ‘flashing the flesh’. The fact that this section is placed next to the Puritan section is no accident, by exposing skin women are also exposing themselves as sexual beings, ones that enjoy pleasure, something that is almost always frowned upon or judged.  The agent provocateur dress, is designed to be worn in the bedroom (presumably), however it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to imagine one of the Kardashians wearing it on the red carpet.

Left: Vivienne Westwood Eve Dress Right: Agent Provocateur Gold Dress
Credit Michael Bowles, Getty Images, The Barbican 

In other areas the aspects of revealing and concealing the body are played with, the placement of the breast baring bathing costume, something as daring now as it would have been in the 60s, was placed next to Vivienne Westwood’s Breast T-Shirt,  a brilliant way of showing the actual breasts that the mannequin could never properly represent.

Vivienne Westwood Breasts T-Shirt and 60s Topless Bikini
Credit Michael Bowles, Getty Images, The Barbican 

“Puritanism is its foil, it’s target”

“The vulgarity is in the purity”

I wore my black and white outfit I wear to all art/ fashion exhibitions thinking it was ‘classic’ but also at odds with my usual jazzy style. Then I reached the ‘Puritan’ section. This showed how the contrast and inferred purity of the white collar could be seen as vulgar while simultaneously being the antithesis to vulgar.

Suddenly my combo of black and white outfit and shiny gold bag couldn’t have been a more perfect outfit to view this exhibition. I left feeling a special affinity with The Vulgar and that lot of what gets classed as ‘Vulgar’ I really love. 

Considering the connection between power/ status quo and judgment of what is vulgar was really brought this exhibition to life for me, as it required a level of engagement and decision making from the viewer that is unusual in fashion exhibitions.

Black and White Puritan Style 

Gold Vivienne Westwood Bag 

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