An 18th-century mantua from the Barbican's The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined exhbition

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican

Ahhh, fashion (to be sung in the style of the theme music to Gok Wan’s Fashion Fix)! For every stylish item, cleverly constructed outfit or tasteful trend, there has been bad taste and vulgarity, the shady yin to fashion’s shiny yang.

Sometimes, the distinction is thinly veiled, à la Christopher Kane’s floral print Crocs shown at Paris Fashion Week. It seems fashion designers have always danced the line between good and bad taste. And it is always the more questionable stuff that gets us all talking.

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”
Oscar Wilde

Within my lifetime, while I indeed had to get dressed in the decade that taste forgot AKA the 1980s, I was thankfully far too young to be responsible for my own sartorial decisions, and most little girls look cute in a polka dot ra-ra skirt, right?

However, I look back to the early noughties, with its plethora of diamante, bizarre bleached denim, Juicy Couture tracksuits, handkerchief hems, embellished cargo pants, ALL the oversized logos and bejewelled thongs (as if sawing your derrière in half wasn’t painful enough without a plastic gem thrown up there for good measure) and thank the fashion Gods that I emerged relatively unscathed (mainly due to Instagram not being invented).

There’s no accounting for taste, as they say.

The Vulgar: Fashion Refined, opening at the Barbican next week, is one of the first fashion exhibitions to navigate the territory around questionable taste face on. Assembled by fashion curator Judith Clark and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, the show features over 120 pieces from the Renaissance to the present day, ranging from inappropriate fan decoration to that ‘tits’ tee by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.

Vivienne Westwood tits t shirt Vulgar exhibition


Also on display are 18th-century mantuas (see main image), with overskirts the width of a double decker bus (I’d imagine). Almost like something out of a gypsy wedding, which are often heralded as the epitome of vulgarity.

What’s interesting for me though, is that having taken a quick glance at some of the items featured in the show, I’m not actually at all repulsed by any of them. Perhaps no surprise really, considering my borderline obsession with leopard print and love for double denim.

“Good taste is death, vulgarity is life.”
Mary Quant

Indeed, it was an Instagram post by Pam Hogg that brought my attention to the exhibition launch – and her dress included in the show is a gorgeous gold lamé number.

So I guess the opulent installation invites us all to think about what constitutes ‘good taste’ and to celebrate our differences. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that something one considers to be ‘vulgar’ is because it’s not to your taste – but the very same item could be coveted by somebody else, or in years to come.

There’s also an element of ‘showing off’ that’s inherently linked to the vulgar, isn’t there? Often tied up with luxury and privilege – although undoubtedly, it is evident that money can’t buy you sophistication and class. A timely arrival, so soon after Kim Kardashian was robbed at knife-point after posting a picture of her million dollar jewellery collection on her social channels. I’m NOT victim-blaming here, btw, but ‘bling’ has always been sought after, in every decade, so it seems.

I’m left wondering what actually makes something vulgar in the first place, and why it is such a sensitive and contested term? I’ll have to head to the exhibition on one of my Artist Dates to ruminate on this some more.

The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, 13th October, 2016 – 5th February, 2017, Barbican Centre, London
Supported by Agent Provocateur

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