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The Vulgar – Fashion Redefined – Review

November 2, 2016

The vulgar – Fashion Redefined is a beautiful, breathtaking show – and also perhaps the most annoying exhibition I’ve ever been to. I suppose that’s something. I see shows that sweep me off my feet and leave me with a big smile, some that are intriguing, informative, or interesting, some that are ok, some that I am indifferent to and some that I am bored by, but annoyed? That’s a first. 


The show has been put together by respected curator and lecturer Judith Clark, and her psychologist husband, Adam Philips. As with most Barbican fashion exhibitions, it is impeccably presented, with the large space allowing the exhibits plenty of room to breathe, and the curators not tempted to cram things in. The exhibits are delicately divided by semi-transparent scrimshaw screens where necessary which retains the appearance of grace and light.


The exhibits themselves are presented mainly against black back grounds and skilfully spotlit, in many cases much more brightly that is usual in a fashion exhibition, to dazzling effect. And one more thing – many of these gorgeous creations are not behind glass, allowing you to eyeball the details of some of the world’s finest couture from centimetres away. Please, go, and drink in exquisite ballgowns by John Galliano for Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Moschino, Walter van Beirendonck, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Viktor and Rolf.


But ignore the wall panels. Just don’t even bother to refocus your gaze from the splendour of fabric that you could be using them on. The theme of the show purports to ponder the definition of vulgarity. Philip’s own definition of vulgar is used as headings for different sections, with titles like Translating the Vulgar, The New Exhibitionism, Too Much, Too Big, and Ruling In and Ruling Out. This all makes it seem like an intellectual challenge of our own preconceptions.

The Vulgar – snobbery

But it just seems like such a snobbish question. Less a question, more a judgement. Whose preconceptions are we challenging here? Not mine, certainly. Maybe Clark, Philips and their dinner party milieu .Is the copying of ancient Greek gowns vulgar? (As Madame Gres and countless others have done) No, why would it be? Is the translation of an abstract painting into a design for a dress vulgar? What? No, it’s quite clever and the result is stunning in its modernity (Of course we are talking about Yves Saint Laurent’s Mondrian Dress). Is a whole culture where the women of every class wore gold bonnets vulgar, as in 18th century Vienna? Well, they were beautiful items, handmade with love and passed down through generations, and no kind of demonstration of wealth or rank so the answer is no. Although I would have liked to have seen that town of twinkling heads.

The vulgar – Denim

Passing on to denim – does denim render items vulgar? Miu Miu  did a whole collection of classic shapes made up in the working class material. They look great, giving items originally made in colourful silks or prints a sleek minimalism. Not vulgar at all! Ok then, how about the excesses of the Andy Warhol inspired paper soup can dress? Consult art and then fashion history – Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can screen prints were a comment of consumerism, and the disposable dresses printed with the design acted as an ironic underlining of his point of view. (Or a cool freebie, whichever way you look at it). Not vulgar, then.

Moschino and Jeremy Scott.

Passing on to very obvious targets – Moschino and Jeremy Scott. Their designs, with an excess of brash colours and use of flashy metallics are not subtle. But when these signifiers of bad taste are used knowingly, can they be vulgar? Jeremy Scott was adored by the club kids of the 2000s, who also loved anything in neon, glitter, outrageous makeup and occasional toplessness. But even what they wore wasn’t vulgar, because it was such a deliberate sticking up of two fingers to taste.


They absolutely gloried in the fun of the unconventional. Pam Hogg and Walter van Beirendonck do something similar (but far more well made than anything a club kid ever threw together) – Walter van Beirendonck constructed a crinoline with an elephant’s head emerging from under the skirt. And Pam Hogg’s designs with gold lamé leather jackets and headpieces from whole crows are pure creativity.


And I thoroughly, absolutely reject the terming of the garments that John Galliano makes as “Vulgar”. He pops up all over the show, in many different sections. Apparently his volume, his exaggeration, his sense of decoration is vulgar. All I see is exquisite construction and ideas flying out of a gifted mind.

No sex, no drag queens? Where’s the vulgarity in that?

Where are the Vegas showgirls, the sex, the logo ridden items? Surely they are vulgar? Showing one’s sexual assets too obviously is always thought to be vulgar – think low cut tops and tight mini skirts. “Too much” makeup, over the top acrylic fingernails – these are supposed to be trashy and vulgar. They would be a more obvious target. Bring out the Victoria’s Secret models, with their glitter, cheap nylon outfits, tits and huge wings. Bring out those who dressed all in Burberry checks or those who wear tracksuits with a designer logo on it – because it’s always fun to laugh at people who are trying so hard to be aspirational but get it wrong. Bring out the drag queens, who revel in their vulgarity.


No, I don’t see it. Really, who beyond Clark and Philips ever said this stuff was vulgar? Though there is a film asking various designers what they consider vulgarity to be, perhaps the curators could have gone further in signposting why each section is vulgar beyond a copy of Elizabethan sumptuary law, designed so no-one should appear to be above their designated status by their dress. A modern version of that disapproval – dismayed headlines puzzling over just how tacky Iris Van Herpen’s intricately pleated dresses are?


A tape of a comedian dismissing Lacroixs latest collection (and actually, that’s very nearly been done, in Absolutely Fabulous. Jennifer Saunder’s character is absolutely obsessed with the designer – “It’s Lacroix, darling” is one of her catch phrases – but the joke is that it is her who is vulgar for her insistence on the designer, not the clothing itself).


Otherwise,  this is just a self indulgent manifestation of a passionate discussion at a dinner party. Great frocks though.


The Vulgar – Fashion Redefined is at the Barbican Centre, London until the 5th February 2017.



Handmade 1700s Chinese fan

A Walter van Beirendonck ensemble

Cream cotton collar, 1880s

Massively wide 18th century mantua