XXY Reviews: “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined”
XXY Reviews: “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined”
“Vulgarity exposes the scandal of good taste”
What exactly makes something vulgar and why? With the notion of “ugly pretty” mainstream in both the fashion and beauty industries today, “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined” is the first exhibition to consider the territory of taste in fashion. Currently on at the Barbican Art Gallery, the show questions notions of vulgarity while revelling in its decadence. Viewers are invited to consider precisely why vulgarity is such a disputed and unsettling term. Is “ugly pretty” in fact beautifully bad taste, or rather just “pretty ugly”?
Conceptualised by exhibition-maker Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, the presentation takes definitions of ‘the vulgar’ as a starting point and includes over 120 fashion exhibits spanning the Renaissance through to the 21st century.
Where good and bad taste mix and match
A decadent romp through 500 years of fashion history, “The Vulgar” showcases historic garments alongside a remarkable roll call of contemporary fashion. Extraordinary for the volume of clothes spanning through antiquity and modern style to the present day, the exhibition testifies how fashion through the ages has purposely broken with and revised taste to create new expressions of style. It often celebrates, courts or exploits the so-called vulgarity and its possible sensual pleasures.
Like a walk through a real-life fashion encyclopaedia, the garments on display are inherently challenging but utterly compelling in their craftsmanship. Drawn from major public and private collections worldwide, pieces come from leading modern and contemporary designers such as Manolo Blahnik, Christian Dior, Iris van Herpen, Christian Lacroix, Prada, Viktor & Rolf and Vivienne Westwood.
Weaving together historical dress, couture and ready-to-wear fashion, textile ornamentation, manuscripts, photography, and a documentary film by Judith Clark, the exhibition aims to give an all-encompassing and multi-faceted overview of the fascinating philosophical subject of aesthetic taste.
Policing the boundaries
The concept is organised around themes and associations that can be applied to the vulgar, such as “Classic Copies”, “Too Much”, “Too Big”, “Exaggerated Bodies”, “Too Popular”, “Common” and the “New Baroque”, to name a few.
Standout “pretty” pieces that come from copies include Karl Lagerfeld’s ‘Cretoise dress’ for Chloe, suggesting mythologised elements of Greek and Italian history through pleats, drapes and folds, but rendered flat and demarcated through embellishment rather than volume. Similarly, Yves Saint Laurent’s iconic 1960s Mondrian Mod style dresses cleverly retain Mondrian’s straight painted lines on the curved female body form.
Exploring the contrast between beautiful fabrics and unorthodox body shapes, 18th-century dresses draped over the dramatic silhouette of the mantua embody the “Too Big” aesthetic. John Galliano’s fantastic Lacroix ball gown equally exemplifies “Too Much”, with its oversized meringue-like proportions and exquisite, plumed silk bird pattern in pinks, oranges, yellows and turquoise.
Yet nowhere is the “ugly pretty” vs. “pretty ugly” debate addressed more than in the whimsical “Exaggerated Bodies” section. Maison Martin Margiela’s standout 2009 nude bodysuit plays with brown wig hair as military-like shoulder pads reminiscent of draped eagle wings or the Addams Family’s bizarre “Cousin Itt”. Furthermore, Walter van Beirendonck’s 2010-11 elephant skirt ensemble with its phallus-like crinoline formed skirt topped by Stephen Jones’ red velvet oversized “Alice in Wonderland” Mad Hatter hat cannot fail but catch every observer’s stunned attention. Are these creations beautiful in their ability to push the boundaries of taste, or hideous in their anthropomorphism?
As someone who doesn’t come from a fashion background, I was nevertheless impressed by the beauty of the clothing as pieces of art in their own right. The fineness of the fabrics – the printed silks, ornate detailing and stand-out colours – as well as the whimsical, the erotic and the downright conceptually crazy, kept my attention for well over two hours. Yet above all, what left me with the strongest impression was the ability of fashion, through exquisitely intricate craftsmanship and all its chameleon-like states, to pose pertinent philosophical questions and thus be elevated to a pure art form.
A must-see for anyone who loves fashion and art, “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined” is currently on at The Barbican from 13 October 2016 – 5 February 2017.
Written by Vanessa Moore,
Visuals by Michael Bowles/Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery